By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
At 12:19 a.m. last Wednesday, as a marathon Santa Rosa City Council meeting crawled toward its conclusion, a great deal of governmental ground had been covered.
The battle over kids handling SWAT guns was over. A dispute between two developers over fees was resolved. And the controversial Howarth Park parking fee was tabled.
Just one last item of business remained: public comments on non-agenda items.
This is the time set aside for members of the public to speak to the council about virtually anything they choose for three minutes each. It comes at the same time every meeting — dead last.
But Councilwoman Marsha Vas Dupre wants to change that. She says it is unfair and disrespectful to residents who take the time out to address their council but then must wait hours to do so.
“I think of this as the beginning of looking at how we treat the public and the way we do the public’s business,” Vas Dupre said.
For years public comments were held at the 4 p.m. start of every council meeting. They were shifted to 6:30 p.m. for a brief period, and six years ago were parked near the end of the meeting.
But last year, the public’s right to address elected officials suffered its latest setback when the comment period was pushed to the very end of meetings, and, to add insult to injury, the city’s television cameras were turned off before the public began speaking.
Critics cried censorship. City officials replied that while they were obliged to sit through everything from constructive criticism to deranged tirades, nothing required them to televise it all.
An advocate for open government, Vas Dupre says she’s seen a noticeable drop in public participation during this portion of City Council meetings in recent years. She feels that’s partly because of a policy that makes it impossible for people to know when they’ll be allowed to speak. The public portion of council meetings begins at 4 p.m. and can end by 6 p.m. or stretch past midnight.
By that early hour last week, only two members of the public rose to speak. One woman harangued the council about the health effects of PG&E smart meters, and another urged the council, as she often does, to denounce U.S. involvement in “illegal” foreign wars.
Vas Dupre wants the public comments period to be returned to a set time. She suggests 4p.m. before the meeting gets under way. She also believes those comments should be televised just like the rest of the open session.
One of the reasons the public comments were pushed back from the beginning of the meetings was because city staff, including well-paid managers, are often gathered for the start of the meetings. It was viewed as a waste of taxpayer money to have them sitting around listening to 9/11 conspiracy theories or poems about cactus farming.
For this reason Vas Dupre would limit remarks to half an hour, enough for 10 people to get three minutes each. Most wouldn’t use all three minutes, she said, if they knew it would push others to later in the meeting.
Susan Gorin, who was mayor last year when the last change was made, said she’s not against revisiting the issue. Putting comments early in the meeting with no time limit, however, could increase the amount of time residents have to wait to speak on matters that are on the agenda, she said.
“There are legitimate concerns I have to make sure the council meetings run smoothly and efficiently,” she said.
She noted that email gives residents an often more effective method of access to council members.
The city of Santa Cruz, which has no shortage of colorful commenters at its council meetings, has a system similar to what Vas Dupre proposes, but limits comments to two minutes each. After 30 minutes, the comment period is closed until the next meeting, said Rose Balsley, an administrative assistant who’s worked at City Hall for 16 years. All are televised.
Each week priority is given to speakers who didn’t speak the prior week, she said.
Vas Dupre said she understands the concerns about staff standing around. She also has sympathy for the argument made at the time that young people, such as Boy Scouts, who are often present at the beginning of council meeting for proclamations shouldn’t be subjected to unpredictable, sometimes inappropriate remarks. Another concern is about speakers extending their allotted time by paying others to read prepared remarks for them. That practice turns the public comments period into a “charade,” she said.
But if making it harder for those people to hold court also disenfranchises other residents from addressing their leaders about genuine local issues, that’s not a trade-off Vas Dupre is comfortable with.
“Ours is not to judge but to listen, that is why we are publicly elected,” she said.