Citizens Advisory Committee provides Bar leadership the public’s perspective
By Rawan Bitar
As a clinical social worker, Maggie McGowan Davis was excited to learn about the Bar’s mental health and wellness efforts when she became part of the Bar’s Citizens Advisory Committee last year.
Davis is one of 12 non-lawyer members on the committee — formerly known as the Citizens Forum — charged with being a sounding board for the Bar Board of Governors and evaluating content disseminated to the public by the Communications Committee.
In her first year, Davis says the committee appears to be very well appreciated by the board.
“I just felt like it was a really good time for me to come onto the committee because, luckily, I was already very familiar with the mental health field,” said Davis, who served in the forensic unit at the Pensacola state hospital, treating patients incompetent to stand trial or found criminally insane. “So I really enjoyed discussing where that’s been over the last couple of years, especially with President Higer’s efforts to really tackle some of those issues as far as the statistics you see, like suicide rates, rates of alcoholism of attorneys, and discussing different types of mental health programs that could be offered.”
Davis said although three attorneys serve on the advisory committee, there are a wide variety of perspectives from people in healthcare, education, and business. “I love that,” she said. “You don’t see that very often in other fields. People getting outside of their silos.”
Chair Lorna Brown-Burton of Ft. Lauderdale, who is on the Board of Governors and in her third year heading the committee, said the 15-member group supports the Bar’s public education efforts, and is a vehicle for two-way communication between Floridians and The Florida Bar.
“Who better to advise us that we are doing what we’ve taken the oath to do than the citizens we serve?” she said. “The Citizens Advisory Committee is that conduit to the public. Because they are the voices, they are constituents from a broad range of our citizenry, and are the voice for the public.”
When the Bar launched its recent public education campaign about the Constitution Revision Commission, “Protect Florida Democracy,” after surveys found only one in 10 Floridians comprehend the once-every-20-year process, the committee was on hand to assess the media content.
Louis Kalivoda, a retired Santa Fe College president’s assistant, said he values his lasting friends on the committee, but also the critical role the Bar plays in “the greater scheme of things.”
“I understand that the advisory committee has been around 10 plus years and it shows The Florida Bar is concerned about how the average citizens, sometimes referred to in editorials as ‘Joe Sixpack,’ think and feel about The Florida Bar and its brand,” he said. “After all, we are talking about one of the absolute three branches of government. There’s the legislative. That’s fine. There’s the executive: the governor or the president. But also there’s the judicial aspect of it, and under the judicial aspect is The Florida Bar and all the lawyers. It’s not only a profession. And some [lawyers turned judges] make it as far as the Supreme Court of Florida and the Supreme Court of the nation. So, it’s not only a matter of a career or a profession, it is also playing a critical role in the functioning of our democracy.”
The Florida Bar is the only state bar to have this kind of committee, which originated in 1998.
The advisory committee also reviewed educational pamphlets and media content from The Florida Bar as part of the 2012 The Vote’s in Your Court campaign, when the Bar wanted to educate the public on the meaning of judicial merit retention before they went to the polls in 2016.
“I am proud of their ability to sometimes get us out of the weeds, and look at the big picture. I am proud of their ability to share with us what issues they think are of importance to the citizenry, or to the community at large. I’m just overall proud of everything they do and put forth as volunteers,” Chair Brown-Burton said.
“They don’t hesitate at any time to be involved and to sometimes be a voice, to say, ‘Look, I think you guys got it wrong. You’re not looking at it fully. You’re missing this part of the pie.’ They are instrumental in sharing with us where we could take another look at something, right? And so, at any point of a debate, they are a great feedback mechanism — sounding board — in getting to understand the public as well as gaining public understanding on issues that are also significant to the Bar.”
The committee was recently reviewed by the Board of Governors Program Evaluation Committee, which included surveying current and former members, to determine if the goals and mission are being met, and some recommendations were made for improvements. In the review report, it was noted that “the Citizens Advisory Committee is a dedicated and hard-working group of distinguished individuals who care deeply about their work for the Bar” and that the committee is key to getting feedback from nonlawyers on Bar programs on a continuous basis.
President-elect Michelle Suskauer will appoint four new citizen members for three-year terms in April, and the members who are terming off present the new member orientation at the June Bar Annual Convention. The chair, vice chair, and lawyer members are appointed by the Bar President-elect to one-year terms and can be reappointed for no more than three terms.
For information about meetings and member profiles, visit www.floridabar.org.