By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
It was 90 minutes into the Petaluma City Council meeting and still no substantive work had taken place.
Mayor David Glass decided that he’d had enough.
Fed up with a steady stream of public comments starting out the past few meetings, many on topics not within the control of Petaluma city leaders, Glass on Monday proposed shifting the public comment section to the end of next week’s meeting. And the council agreed.
Other cities have tried it, including Santa Rosa, with varying levels of success – and a fair bit of criticism that free speech is being quashed.
The issue centers on the three minutes provided in Petaluma for individual speakers to talk about any subject, separate from public comment related to specific agenda items.
City Attorney Eric Danly advised the City Council that its meetings aren’t typical “public forums” — like a public square — and the city isn’t obligated to provide a bully pulpit for anyone to say their piece.
Glass said he’s received numerous complaints from residents about important Petaluma city business being handled well into the evening, sometimes past 10 p.m.
Santa Rosa has changed its policy more than once on when the public can speak on items not on the meeting agenda. It now begins public comment for non-agenda items at the end of the meeting.
Glass favors a similar approach for Petaluma.
“What is happening here does not work in the form of conducting the city’s business,” Glass said. “Many times we’re hearing about the Bohemian Club. Many times we’re hearing about issues that are not in the jurisdiction of Petaluma.”
In years past, the council conducted an afternoon session, then broke for dinner and returned at 7 p.m. to deal with the one or two primary issues of the day. Now, the Monday meetings begin with public comment at 7 p.m. and sometimes last past 11 p.m., particularly if a controversial item is on the agenda.
“What we’re getting is public comment that over and over, almost at every meeting, is not germane to this jurisdiction,” Glass said.
One man has taken to reciting poems in his allotted three minutes. Another has spoken on “child murders” he says he’s investigated throughout the U.S. Others complain about national politics.
Petaluma resident Zen Destiny, who frequently offers up colorful commentary on local, national and international issues, said lengthy meetings aren’t the fault of the concerned citizenry.
“That’s a crock,” he told the council, “Y’all talk too much.”
In Santa Rosa, the TV cameras are turned off to discourage speakers, some of whom have been paid, from using the free televised platform to read political screeds or offer up conspiracy theories.
Glass said he doesn’t want to go that far in Petaluma, but he does want to prevent city department heads from having to sit through hours of commentary irrelevant to their jobs.
The council agreed to move public comment on items not on the agenda to the end of next week’s meeting. Also moved to the end will be the council comment section, which in Petaluma can be lengthy if each of the seven members gives a status report about items of their concern.
Councilman Mike Harris said he would support an experiment for next week’s meeting, but wasn’t ready to “go down that route in perpetuity” without investigating the issue further.
Other council members agreed to give it a try for next week only, when a potentially controversial redesign of the Target shopping center is scheduled for a public hearing.
Meanwhile, in Santa Rosa, Councilwoman Marsha Vas Dupre has suggested moving a limited public comment period back to the beginning of the council sessions, saying it is disrespectful to residents who must wait hours to address the council.