An interesting free speech versus public service squabble rolling around Key West raises a particularly sensitive First Amendment conundrum: Does accepting an appointment to a public board come with restrictions on what one posts, writes or says in forums like social media or newspapers?
Of course it does. That’s a no-brainer for me. When I agree to serve on a not-for-profit board or a citizen-driven, appointed, public policy commission, I figure out ways to mostly keep my mouth shut and my fingers off a keyboard when it comes to decisions and issues that might come before me as a board or commission member.
I’ll also make sure those issues are first on the agendas at the next board or commission meetings, which is where they and my opinions on them belong.
There’s a line, often a bit wonky, that ought not be crossed without careful consideration of consequences, including the creation of insurmountable conflicts of interest resulting in my stepping aside — or being forced to leave.
That happened to Gregory Lloyd, a private citizen representing City Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover on the Key West Planning Board. Former commissioner Margaret Romero originally appointed Lloyd to the board; Hoover extended that appointment multiple times.
Hoover apparently asked Lloyd to step down after he wrote a letter to the editor in the Citizen raising concerns about the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority’s failures over decades to plan for and implement repairs and replacement of the pipeline that provides water to the Keys.
Lloyd declined and Hoover introduced a City Commission resolution to remove him as a Planning Board member. In multiple messages between Lloyd and Hoover and posted to Facebook, Hoover said she felt Lloyd’s letter had expressed his “prejudices” on on issues that could open the board to future challenges. City commission took up that resolution at its June 8, 2023, meeting and voted to remove Lloyd from the Planning Board. You can watch the discussion and vote here.
The free speech or public service trade-off
Here’s the thing: It’s impossible to disagree with Lloyd’s reasoning in his published letter. If anything, I would have loaned him a handful of my Wee Donkeys and Crikeys so he could justifiably ratchet up the outrage a couple notches.
We’re all (or at least those of us who pay attention to these things) wondering how the heck FKAA can afford that monstrous new palace it calls an office and lifetime benefits for executives and their spouses when they can’t seem to get their act together to ensure we’ve got water. Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey, what in the actual world have they been doing all this time?
But there’s a but. Though writing as a private citizen, Lloyd was a sitting member of the planning commission, which realistically can be expected to have to deal with water supply and development issues at some point. And, that’s where the perception of a conflict of interest could occur. Having announced his stand on FKAA’s competence or lack thereof, could he be perceived as making an objective decision?
I empathize with him. Every time I write about Monroe County, state funding, the environment, affordable housing, land use regulation, crushing development, ROGOs, TDRs, etc., I am cognizant I am an appointed member of the Monroe County Comprehensive Land Plan Authority Advisory Committee (say that three times). Heather Carruthers appointed me first; Jim Scholl did the re-up. I get paid $100 a month. I love the work we do. Even though our committee meetings are public, I am careful that what I write doesn’t run afoul of policies, people and practices — and I don’t blindside committee members or staff.
That’s just one example of my potential conflicts. We ought not forget that the Citizen cuts me a check once a week — a small one, but a check nonetheless. And there’s Fair Insurance Rates for Monroe (FIRM), whose work with hurricane and wind insurance has been a godsend to homeowners and with whom I’ve had an occasional policy disagreement as a board member. Not to mention those conflicts that trail along with Ranger Ed, like the Key West Tree Commission and the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden.
All of us who work as volunteers or appointed board members walk that line between the temptation of unfettered free-speech posting and a more circumspect, albeit a tedious and less adrenaline-fueled, approach. It’s hard to resist the temptation to fire off that letter or email or hit publish on the social media post or comment. Been there, done that.
I had hoped Gregory Lloyd didn’t lose his post on the Planning Board over this. He’s probably got nine toes over the line with that letter in the Citizen, but I’m disinclined to think he did irreparable damage to his or the board’s objectivity. It IS hard to argue his reasoning. But that letter to the editor wasn’t the right venue.
Instead, perhaps lessons learned. Words matter. Where they’re shared matters. When we serve publicly we give up a bit of our right to free speech. It’s a decent tradeoff.