By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
As Monday’s Petaluma City Council meeting progressed at an unusually rapid pace, the irony became obvious.
The council was set to tackle the troublesome issue of public comment periods that can become unwieldy, unruly and downright irrelevant time-wasters. But Monday there was only six minutes of public comment — and no one outlasted their allotted three minutes.
Mayor David Glass asked the council to consider moving public comments on items not on the agenda to the end of meetings. The goal was to get to important city business earlier, which sometimes has come as late as 11 p.m. or midnight.
But for now, the council will keep comments at the beginning of the meeting.
Santa Rosa has moved in the opposite direction. Last year, the council pushed public comments to the end of the meetings, which begin at 4 p.m. and can go past midnight. Last week, the council rejected one member’s effort to move such comments back to the beginning of the meetings.
In Petaluma, public comment periods have lasted nearly an hour at times, pushing back business such as the city’s budget or debate over a controversial development. Speakers have used their three-minute opportunity to lambaste the federal government, suggest vast conspiracy theories or comment on events outside Petaluma’s jurisdiction.
Monday, the council discussed making various changes, but in the end, took no formal action. City Attorney Eric Danly said the city’s rules are flexible enough to handle excess or rambling speakers on a case-by-case basis.
“I don’t see this as a big enough problem to shove it to the end of the meeting,” said Councilman Mike Healy. He noted that councilmembers’ comments took up more time than public comments this week.
The council seemed open to setting a total public comment period of 20 minutes at the beginning of each meeting and dividing the time among speakers if necessary.
Danly advised the mayor he has the right to remind speakers to stay on topics relevant to Petaluma, and Councilwoman Tiffany Renee encouraged him to interrupt those who stray.
Glass said too often public comment periods have dragged on “while our staff is here and the clock is ticking.” Residents have been “inconvenienced beyond any standard reason,” he said, waiting for important issues to be taken up three and four hours into a meeting.
But a majority of the council opposed moving the entire public comment section to the end, saying it would unduly burden citizens who want to participate in their local government.