Last Tuesday, the subject of public comment procedures was on the City Council’s agenda. Incoming Mayor Brett Lee had proposed some potential changes such as limiting general public comment to 45 minutes, with remaining speakers coming back at the end of the meeting, and shortening individual public comment from three minutes to two and a half minutes.
The intention of the changes was potentially to try to expedite the meetings in the spirit of greater efficiency. However, there were a number of citizens’ emails sent to Council objecting to the proposed changes and around a dozen citizens testified, urging the Council not to make these changes. It was clear that there was a Council majority who wanted to try alternative methods to the proposed changes to manage public comment. These alternative methods, including use of the 1-,2-,3- minute method for public comment when there are many speakers (that is, encouraging commenters to speak for only one or two minutes, instead of the full three allowed, and giving those speakers priority in the queue), served as a great relief to many people whom expressed concern about the original proposals. But it was helpful for the issue to be discussed with the public, explaining the unintended consequences that would result from forcing people to return at the end of the Council meeting to testify, particularly when an item they wanted to comment on likely would have already been voted on.
Some commenters at the meeting pointed out that shortening the time for public comment would continue a pattern of reducing opportunities for citizens to speak at public comment, since City Council meetings used to be weekly. However, several City Council’s ago, the practice of having Council meeting every two weeks began, which has resulted in much more jam-packed agendas, but also reducing the opportunity for public comment by 50%. Further diminishing of public comment would only restrict the community’s ability to bring their concerns directly to the City Council even more.
Given all of these concerns brought forward, thoughtful comments were raised by Council member Will Arnold who, while understanding the good intentions of the proposed changes, voiced his support of trying the hand-count method at the beginning of general public comment to determine the total number of speakers and then dividing up the time accordingly. If this meant adding a little more time added beyond the 45-minute general comment total time target to assure all were heard, that could be considered at the time by the Council to avoid the problem of cutting off the speakers at 45 minutes and force them to return at the end of the meeting to speak. Council member Arnold also suggested using the 1-,2- 3-minute method that has worked well previously, which was also supported by Council member Frerichs, to use when there were many speakers.
Mayor Pro Tem Gloria Partida also had thoughtful comments, recognizing that while having the meeting be efficient is desirable, the bigger concern for her was wanting to make sure that the concerns of the public would be heard. Further, she expressed the desire of pausing before making any changes now to first allow some time for the new composition of Council members to work together, and see how that dynamic evolves with all working towards optimizing the efficient flow of the meetings.
Much to his credit, Mayor Lee listened to all of the testimony and considered the input and he decided to pause any changes. Instead, he would try the management methods suggested by Council members and the public, including working towards keeping the Council discussions as concise as possible as well.
It became clear that the importance of public comment for citizens to be able to be heard not only by the Council, but also by other community members, is one the main reasons we have Community Chambers, and why the City Council meetings are televised. Letters and emails to the Council and Staff typically cannot be viewed on-line by the public, as compared to the benefit of public testimony at the televised City Council meetings that can be viewed by community, keeping them informed on the issues.
In the end, the community members who came were appreciative for the Council hearing their concerns and that the Council majority, led by Mayor Lee were considerate and caring enough to respond in a positive way to arrive at a wise decision regarding public comment procedures.