Last Updated: Wednesday, March 29, 2017, 11:28 PM EDT
As Florida's Constitution Revision Commission met for its first public hearing Wednesday, a coalition of government watchdog groups railed against the commission chairman's decision to schedule the event on relatively short notice.
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Hundreds showed up at the public hearing at the University of Central Florida Wednesday evening, so many that an overflow room was needed. Many hoped to speak on issues ranging from restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences, to transparency, to fully funding public schools.
"Preserving home rule is a top priority for the Florida League of Cities and me personally and it does have an affect on our cities," said attendee Rosemary Wilson during the hearing
Earlier Wednesday, critics gathered on the steps of Florida's Historic Capitol to question why the chairman, Carlos Beruff, scheduled it just over a week ago.
"It appears that the CRC is trying to discourage full participation," said Florida League of Women Voters President Pamela Goodman, who was joined by representatives of Equality Florida, Florida Common Cause and Progress Florida.
"How can Floridians trust the CRC's intentions when no respect is shown for our need and right to have full notice of and access to everything that happens in this process?" Goodman asked.
Beruff was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, a close ally of the billionaire developer who is expected to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson next year. Should the commission decide to put one or more amendments on the 2018 ballot that are popular among conservatives, Republican turnout could swell, helping Scott's chances.
But Beruff is also coming under fire from no less a staunch Republican than House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Lutz), who is eyeing a run to succeed Scott as governor. In scheduling a handful of hearings during the springtime legislative session, Beruff has effectively precluded five lawmakers appointed to the commission by Corcoran from attending.
"Immediately, the first action is to disenfranchise one-sixth (of the commission). I don't think that's a good start," Corcoran told reporters last week.
In a statement, Meredith Beatrice, the commission's external affairs director, sought to dismiss the allegations that Beruff isn't sufficiently committed to transparency.
"Chair Beruff is working with commissioners to balance the CRC's commitment to accomplishing as much as we can, in the short time we have, while maximizing commissioner participation and public input," Beatrice wrote.
The coalition, however, is calling on Beruff to reconsider the commission's initial schedule.
"When you only give them a very short amount of notice and when you schedule meetings that are in conflict with other important state proceedings like the legislative session, it just makes it that much more difficult for people to participate. And it raises the question of why they would do that in the first place," said Damien Filer of Progress Florida.
If people can't attend the public hearings they can still be heard by reaching out online, including on Twitter at @reviseFLcon. Members of the public can contact the CRC by emailing email@example.com or by calling (850) 717-9550.