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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

New Mayor and Council Alters Public Comment

Last night, a citizen came at 7:05 PM to speak to council and was surprised to discover that the public comment period was already over. If that citizen had seen the agenda last night, they would have noticed that public comment period was supposed to begin at 6:45 PM instead of 7:00 PM.

This part of the new change in the council under new Mayor Ruth Asmundson. But it is worse than simply a change in time, it represents a change in the entire procedure by which public comment has operated for the last two years.

Under the previous Ruth Asmundson Mayorship, public comment allotted two minutes per person. When Sue Greenwald took over as Mayor in 2006, she extended the time to three minutes per person, thereby opening up the process. Mayor Asmundson was notorious for cutting people off. We still have on video a scene where a UC Davis official who spoke beyond the allotted time was told by the Mayor, "We're not listening."

However, that pales in comparison to the new policy which seemingly aims directly at cutting the public out of the process almost altogether. Now, the public comment period runs from 6:45 PM to 7:00 PM. Anyone who wishes to speak past 7:00 PM must come back to the meeting after it all of the business is done and speak then.

The Brown Act governs the ability of the public to address of given governance board.
"Every agenda for regular meetings shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body on any item of interest to the public, before or during the legislative body's consideration of the item, that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body, provided that no action shall be taken on any item not appearing on the agenda unless the action is otherwise authorized by subdivision." (54954.3).
This policy falls within the realm of (b):
"The legislative body of a local agency may adopt reasonable regulations to ensure that the intent of subdivision (a) is carried out, including, but not limited to, regulations limiting the total amount of time allocated for public testimony on particular issues and for each individual speaker."
So this policy clearly does not violate the Brown Act. However, cutting off and limiting public violates the spirit of the open government act. There are both practical and philosophical reasons to allow the public better access to addressing their elected representatives in local government. Frankly, the previous policy worked quite well. There was rarely a lengthy public comment period and when there was it reflected a large concern in the community about a particular issue.

The Vanguard hopes this is not an attempt by the Mayor to speed up council meetings. If that is the case, there are better ways to accomplish this. Public comment is a very small component of the meetings to begin with except in rare occurrences.

However public comment is vital toward an engaged electorate. If the school board could listen to hours of public comment for weeks on end when programs and schools were threatened to be cut, so too can the city council.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting