My First Time... Public Comment

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My First Time - Public Comment in Berkeley
L A Wood,  Berkeley Voice, February 2, 1995

Most of us can remember our first time. Mine came on a cool March Tuesday evening several years ago. I remember mounting my bike and riding uptown. Upon arriving, I coasted to a stop, locked my bike and headed up the front stairs. Moving quickly through the lobby and to the second floor, I entered through the open chamber door. I had waited all day in anticipation of this moment. Only three minutes; what would I say?City Council chamber 1939

The first time the public was invited to Berkeley's City Council's regular meetings was Dec. 5, 1939. Mayor Gaines sent invitations to 10 registered Berkeley voters to attend the proceedings. Back then, council meetings were held at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays. That morning council gathered in the same room that is in use today. The dozen or more city representatives sat in a group of tables behind a stretched rope barrier, separating them from the public participants.

The mayor opened the meeting and introduced the nine citizens who had accepted the city's special invitation. Gaines stated that he hoped the meeting would afford those of the public an opportunity to see how the procedure of the city council operates. He pointed out a bulletin board with a listing of city projects and offered them for public inspection. Each resident was given a copy of the City Charter. The mayor also welcomed the eighth grade of Burbank Junior High School.

It was not until three weeks later on Jan. 2, 1940, that the city council's regular meeting was forever changed. Shortly after his welcoming remarks, Mayor Gaines offered an opportunity for public comment to those with a special invitation to the meeting. He stated that those invited should feel free to make suggestions during the progress of the meeting.

At the end, two members of the public expressed appreciation for the opportunity to participate. One of them, Mr. McClellan, stated that attending a city council meeting was not something an average citizen would do, unless urged to do so.

Council Considers Changes in Public Comment Rules
Marc Albert,  Berkeley Voice, October 15, 1999

The half-hour public comment period that commences City Council meetings could be reformed to prohibit speakers from yielding their time to others.

The council will again consider Mayor Shirley Dean's plan to refer the matter to its rules committee. Tuesday -- a move repeatedly thwarted by the council's progressive faction.

Dean said a citizen brought the matter to her attention during an open house session. The man wanted to air his views on sewer rate increases, but never had the chance. "This person came and wanted to talk about the sewer rates but be couldn't get heard," she said. "He told me he watched several meetings afterward on TV and came to the conclusion that we seldom heard from people," not part of organized groups.

Current public comment rules favor large organized groups. Potential speakers fill out cards that are randomly chosen by the city clerk. Speakers who are called then have the chance to address the council for three minutes on any subject. Large groups often use the system to their advantage by encouraging all supporters to fill out cards. Many speakers choose to yield their three minutes to other group members.

Often, several or even a majority of the 10 speakers are from the same group. If 50 cards are filled out and 20 are from one group, then statistically 40 percent of the cards called would represent the group. The proposed change would require those called to speak. The change would prevent the practice where in effect several spokespersons from a group in the hypothetical example have a 40 percent chance of being called, while a lone individual has a 2 percent chance.

Councilman Kriss Worthington said he doesn't think the change is a good idea. "The rule allows a group to choose who they want to speak, so they can decide who will make the most cogent or entertaining speech. The benefits of allowing people to choose who they want to speak for them are substantial."

Supporters of the change called the current system undemocratic, while opponents of the change said the reform itself is undemocratic. If the new rule is adopted it would effect the large organized groups that flex their political muscle in the public comment period. However the groups cannot be characterized as favoring one council faction over the other.

For example the Black Repertory Group generally supports moderates, while the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, a group opposed to tritium research at Lawrence Berkeley Lab usually lines up behind progressives. Disabled activists have packed the chamber to support progressive budget spending on the warm water pool, but have turned out to support the moderates for Patrick Kennedy's Gaia Building. Playing field advocates have also filled the roster advocating the purchase of the Lower Harrison tract for new athletic fields.

Councilwoman Linda Maio said she supports the existing rules to a point. "I don't agree that a person shouldn't be allowed to give their time to another. I think that it's fine to do that, and important for spokespeople to be heard." But, Maio said when large issues with many speakers come before the council it has the effect of squeezing out other voices. Maio said she might pursue a new structure that would set a quota on the number of cards on the same subject.

Eight year council gadfly L A Wood said can see both sides. Wood pointed out that the Black Repertory Group drew eight of ten cards at a recent meeting, and said he saw no problem with letting people yield their time, because some people are uncomfortable with public speaking, "certainly we should allow people to speak for them."

Wood suggested the council be more creative. "If the council wanted to be real democratic, they should follow the Oakland model, which allows a limited amount of public comment on each item throughout the agenda just prior to debate."

Dean iterated that her proposal isn't set in stone. "I'm not wedded to changing it. I'm not sure it's worth it to change it, but it's worth discussing it in the Rules Committee." Dean said progressives hold a majority on the committee and that any reform would not make it to the full council without their acquiescence. Dean said the proposal would still give large groups an edge, but the change would allow more voices to be heard.

Berkeley City Council Pondering Hearing Restrictions
Will Harper,  
Berkeley Voice, May 16, 1996

Council Pondering Hearing Restrictions
Is it democracy in action or public filibuster?

Following recent marathon public hearings, members of the city council are asking: At what point does so-called democratic participation become counter-productive?

Most recently after enduring a five-hour public hearing over the fate of a landmark building targeted for demolition last month, bleary-eyed council members wearily debated in the wee hours of morning. Only the most vigilant remained to witness the outcome.

Ultimately, after deciding to save the building at 2419 Haste St., the council was forced to schedule a special meeting to handle its unfinished business.

That was the last straw for some council members. In previous months they had already sat through mega-public hearings over the proposed Hollywood Video, People's Park, and an application to turn an old Safeway into a bargain retail store.

So now both sides of the fence want to do something to curtail the time allotted for certain public hearings. Councilmembers Polly Armstrong, Linda Maio, and Carla Woodworth are suggesting limiting public hearings for land-use matters and in cases where there are clearly two sides to 90 minutes.

Armstrong argues that the current system of allowing everyone a chance to speak is ultimately undemocratic when decisions are being after midnight and most people are in bed.

She added that many times speakers repeat points that have already been made numerous times before during the hearing. Limiting the hearing to 90 minutes, she said, will give both sides a chance to make their case and allow people to get home at a reasonable hour.

"I think it's something we need to do so real people with kids, jobs, and outside responsibilities can feel like they can come to a public hearing and then go on with their lives," said Armstrong. "Our current process shuts out all but the most organized and the most zealous participants.

"It just doesn't serve the process of good government. It gives the impression that quantity is a substitute for quality."

Terry Francke, the director of the First Amendment Coalition, agreed that 90 minutes provide ample time for the public to make its case.

"There does get to a point of diminishing returns if the very generosity of time accorded in one instance makes the wait longer for everyone else," he said. "It's more important that a variety of viewpoints be heard rather than every last person getting his two-cents in."

Francke said people can always write letter to their council members or submit petitions with signatures.

Local activist L A Wood, a regular speaker during public hearings, said limiting the time for hearings would inevitably limit the public's ability to participate.

"The public hearing is a guaranteed opportunity to address an issue as you get in line. That's very democratic," Wood said. "Berkeley acts like it wants public participation but it continues to do things to discourage it. I think some council members want less participation and less scrutiny."

The idea to limit the time for public hearing isn't new. For the past two years the Zoning Board has forced opponents and supporters of projects to split into camps and select a few speakers to represent their viewpoint.

The council proposal would work in a similar way. Each side would select up to ten speakers to be heard alternately. If there's any time remaining, speakers would be selected at random.

Ann Henderson, the president of the League of Women Voters, said the government watchdog didn't oppose limiting time allotted for zoning or land-use appeals where there's clearly two sides. But she said the League would have a difficult time supporting constraints on broader issues where there might be a wide range of viewpoints.

Armstrong, Maio and Woodworth were forced to withdraw the proposal last week when it appeared they didn't have the votes to pass it. Mayor Shirley Dean and others said they would never vote for the proposal.

But Armstrong insisted that the issue is not dead and added that she was willing to tinker with the proposal in order to get the necessary five votes. If she tinkers enough, she just might get the necessary political support

Public Participation policy for the Alameda County Urban Runoff Program
To: Jack A. Lindley Water Resources Manager
From: L A Wood, October 19, 1992

On September 22nd, I attended the scheduled Management Committee meeting with the encouragement of yourself and several others in the Alameda County runoff program. As you will recall, my concerns with the Management Committee focused on the issue of public participation and related policy development. (Please refer to Management Committee Agenda Sept. 22nd, Items 3, 4 and 5.)

I came to your meeting as an acknowledged "interested member of the public" with the hopes of addressing your management group. I assumed that there would be time for me to speak, either in the context of current policy considerations or in some form of public comment at the beginning of your deliberations. Neither of these situations occurred, so I sat quietly for nearly two hours and then watched as you closed the meeting. Only through the attention drawn by others did you even acknowledge my presence. It was in this context, during the fading moments after the regular meeting, that I attempted to speak. My public and personal response to this process was one of anger and frustration.

In our initial conversation, you repeated a statement about the fact that all program policy decisions are made by the Management Committee and that this committee was the appropriate public forum to express all my concerns. I recognize that September's meeting represented the first scheduled time for any public comment on the policymaking process in the ACURCWP. I also recognize that with a simple agenda change, this committee has postponed any public comment to any program policy development and public participation in this particular process.

As a member of the public, I find it a bit disconcerting that Alameda County's program would spend so much time developing a public participation policy. This seems a little like reinventing the wheel. I came to your meeting with several expectations. First and foremost, I assumed that an open comment period would be provided to the public at the beginning of the meeting. There was none. This would have guaranteed me some forum in which to speak, especially when committee agendas and subsequent discussions are subject to being postponed.

The most effective time for public comment is at the time of actual policy deliberations. This allows for constructive public input to CURRENT policy considerations and affords a more critical level of public participation.

To develop separate policies for public participation for each subcommittee is less than desirable for the public. Multiple public participation policies confuse the process of public participation. The program appears to have been carried away with the idea of policy development in this area. I see this policy development process for public participation to be divisive, and calculated to postpone or slow public access. A clear and singular standard is essential, along with its immediate implementation.

The issue of public participation is not unlike many of the other policy deliberations undertaken by the program. There is no time frame or statutory requirements for this area of policy development and implementation. Given this, I expect the program's participation policy to develop slowly and to remain restrictive.

Finally (so you might remember), in June of this year, a small group of neighbors in West Berkeley and a video entitled "Portal to the Bay" challenged the policy development for the ACURCWP surrounding municipal disposal and program implementation. This did cause changes to the program's policies. Now the issue is public participation and Alameda County's runoff program is giving final consideration to its public access policy. Today, there is no group or video to influence the program's public participation policy development. As reported by the Policy Level Subcommittee, "the only comment received was from a citizen named L A Wood." This has caused a postponement of recommendations from the subcommittee. Both of these public actions speak well of the need and the impact of public participation in the ACURCWP.

cc: Tom Bates, Assemblyman, District 12, Mayor Hancock, City of Berkeley, James Dillard, Clean Stormwater Project Manager, Berkeley, Robert Marek, Assistant Public Works Engineer, Berkeley Diane Heinze, Eisenburg, Olivieri, & Associates

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