Florida is almost a month into Governor Ron DeSantis’s executive order that suspended local government mandates and restrictions based on the COVID-19 State of Emergency. In early to mid-May, Manatee’s Board of County Commissioner (BOCC) quickly followed DeSantis’s lead and removed all mask requirements, temperature checks, and social distancing within County Facilities.  The community then quickly witness active protests and lawsuits demanding Manatee School District be held accountable for ignoring the Governor’s executive order. But does this order include some of Manatee’s Constitutional Offices and their elected officials that tend to be less noticed by the public? Such as the Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller, Angelina “Angel” Colonesso; Property Appraiser, Charlie Hackney; Tax Collector, Ken Burton Jr.; and Supervisor of Elections, Tom Bennett?

DeSantis’s Executive Order #2021-102 issued in early May, specifically lists “suspending of local emergency restrictions on individuals and business to return day-to-day life back to normal everywhere in the State.” And also includes “local communities lack justification in continuing to impose COVID-19 mandates or restrictions upon their citizens.”  GREGORY RESPONSE HERE

Last year during Florida’s COVID lockdown, most Constitutional Offices were closed to the public and once reopening, halted most walk-in services and sensibly required residents to make an appointment for transactions to adhere to the State and CDC recommended guidelines for the safety and protection of residents and employees – restrictions especially needed in the more heavily trafficked offices of the Clerk and Tax Collector.

Several weeks after DeSantis’s issued his executive order, residents will find the Property Appraisers and Supervisor of Election as fully operational, but will face restrictions in the offices of the Clerk and Tax Collector.  All four of these Constitutional Offices are headed by Republican elected officials and appear to be evenly split on following footsteps of the conservative majority BOCC’s footsteps of removing service restrictions implemented on their citizens-such as requiring appointments and limited walk-in services.   In response to an inquiry made by the Manatee Herald, Sharon Stief, Chief Deputy at the Supervisor of Elections, and Mark B. Johns, Chief Deputy at the Property Appraisers, provided identical statements that their “offices are fully open to the public and with no restrictions placed on residents.”  Per the Clerk and Tax Collector Office websites, an individual is required to make an appointment via online or telephone for nearly every in-person transaction – implying walk-ins are being turned away.  In response to the Manatee Herald inquiry regarding what is preventing the Clerk and Tax Collector’s office from removing COVID implemented restrictions and returning to normal operations; Michael Gallen, General Counsel, Clerk of Circuit Court and Comptroller stated, the Clerk’s will continue to “follow the recommendations of the Florida Supreme Court and Local Administrative Orders of the Court related to social distancing, among other matters.”  Readers can review Florida Supreme Court COVID-related orders  here https://www.floridasupremecourt.org/Emergency.  Gallen clarified listings on the Clerk’s website that historical locations do not require appointments, residents are requested to make appointment – but not required for marriage license, but appointments are required for marriage ceremonies and passports – due to being high volume services.  Gallen noted, “Additionally, we’ve always encouraged use of our online e-services. Customers have the option to receive service at the counter”.  Mandie Ferguson, Director of Communications & Employee Initiatives, Tax Collector, indicated that “returning to allowing walk-ins would have a significant impact on the wait times of residents visiting our offices.”  Prior to COVID, appointments were an option for residents and not a requirement.  Ferguson stated, “The appointment requirement has allowed hundreds of thousands of residents in our office to experience expedient service”.

The ongoing enforcement of requiring a resident to make an appointment for extremely important transactions – accompanied by a 15-month long removal of the traditional walk-in services- is a burdensome restriction placed on citizens by a local government entity.  Options for same-day service or walk-ins for individuals need to return to Manatee.  Should residents have to continue to make an appointment or wait several days to replace a driver’s license or apply for passports due to concerns of long wait times?  The citizens should decide if the Clerk and the Tax Collector need to follow the example placed by the BOCC, the Property Appraisers, and the Supervisor of Elections, and remove these appointment-only restrictions.  The government needs to give the people freedom on deciding to wait as a walk-in – even for potentially long periods of time, or make an appointment in advance for a service as they see fit.

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