The most notable thing that happened at Thursday’s final Miami-Dade County budget public hearing — aside from a staffer dropping the f-bomb on a hot mic (more on that later) — is what didn’t happen: Several residents didn’t get to make public comments on the last stop for the $9 billion 2020-2021 spending plan.
They included former Miami-Dade School Board Member Raquel Regalado, a commission candidate likely to inherit the board’s decisions, who wanted to discourage them from spending so much on capital projects until we come out of the COVID-19 crisis, which could change a lot of behavior, like in transit. She also wanted them to rethink the $400 million jail, not because we don’t need one but because we need to have one that has post-COVID design in mind so it doesn’t become another petri dish for our inmates and corrections staff. It’s no secret these are infection zones.
But Regalado never got the chance.
When she tried to sign on for the 5:01 p.m. hearing, she kept getting the same message, sending her to a 9:30 a.m. meeting. Then she emailed and texted her commissioner and called the live call number. A guy answered.
“He said they were having a lot of people call in and that it was unusual,” Regalado said. “He said he would put me in the queue. And I was waiting.”
Then she used her son’s phone to call again. Same guy picks up. “I told him they closed the public comments and I’m still here,” she said, adding that she had mistakenly been queued as a listener and not a speaker.
What’s more, Regalado told Ladra, she was told that Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson — who had already cut the alloted time to speak in half to one minute — was informed that several people had been queued incorrectly, and she chose not to let them speak. She didn’t tell the other commissioners about it. She didn’t ask for a legal opinion. She just brushed everyone off with a single stroke.
Sure, one might think Regalado was blackballed. A critic of and onetime challenger to current Mayor Carlos Gimenez, she could have been singled out. Esa Raquelita. Que se ha creido?
But, lo and behold, others were left holding their words, too.
“I am listening and we will not be given a chance to speak. This meeting should have been postponed or held in person,” said Community Council Member Martha Bueno, who posted a video on Twitter later Thursday night to make her point.
“Miami-Dade Commissioners had a meeting tonight on the Miami-Dade budget. It’s a huge budget. And all of us who wished to speak should have been able to. However, we were not,” Bueno says in the video, recounting the same problems Regalado had. To a tee.
“There was some issue and I had trouble signing up on their website. After that was apparently resolved, I did recieve an invite and was placed into a ‘listen only’ category,” Bueno says, a bit peeved.
“I understand the commissioners’ time is valuable. But they also need to understand that this year is different. This year we’ve been put into a six month lock down. A lot of peopole have been without work. A lot of people are unable to pay their mortgages,” Bueno said, uring them to take their time and find places to cut costs because the COVID-19 crisis fallout is going to be felt next year and the year after that (and the year after that).
“Please don’t kick this can down the road and push this off to a freshman class of commissioners,” she said.
Nice speech. But a little late, coming hours after the commission voted.
How can this be legal? The emergency order by Gov. Ron DeSantis that allows municipalities to have virtual meetings, during what we thought would be a shorter stay-at-home order, specifically says that it does not waive the public’s right to access and commentary. What the actual fuck? (Here, the word is appropriate).
This is going to be blamed on some technical issue. Or a series of technical issues. Like, really? They can’t expect us to buy that. Remember, Edmonson already cut the traditional two-minute comment time in half. Again. She has done it before. Just like she has cut speakers off before mid-sentence at the one minute mark. It’s almost (read: most definitely) like they don’t want to hear the comments at all. How much of a stretch is it to think they conveniently cut people off after a certain hour or number? Not much.
Ironically, many of those who did get to speak echoed repeated calls to make the budget process more participatory — not just a meeting at the end, after its all written, when nothing is really going to be changed — which this was the exact opposite of. Maybe the commission chairwoman was embarrassed by the sheer number of people shaming the board for completely ignoring an informed and engaged constituency who was there to raise legitimate concerns about the spending of their tax dollars.
It’s not like this is completely unexpected. They’ve had issues with speakers at these virtual Zoom meetings before. Is it too much to ask that they take a minute to ensure that everyone who wants to speak has spoken? The technology is not ideal in every case and one has to wonder why the county is still having the meetings solely this way — especially one so important as the final budget hearing — when restaurants are open and movie theaters and bowling alleys will be on Monday.
In fact, since the budget doesn’t have to be finalized until Oct. 1, technically, the county should have another public hearing next week — a real public hearing — to make up for this botched one.
And someone should investigate how this happened, how, on the evening of the very last public hearing on the county’s $9 billion budget, the public was snubbed.