Council Meeting’s Early Close Leaves Speakers Speechless

By Judith Scherr
Friday June 22, 2007

City Commissioners Jesse Arreguin and Steve Wollmer had been sent to address the Tuesday City Council meeting by the Rent Board and Housing Advisory Commission. 

The duo stuck around the council chambers waiting for what they thought would be the last matter of council business—addressing city officials on matters not on the agenda. Both speakers represented boards asking the council to initiate an independent investigation into the forced resignation of former Housing Director Stephen Barton, a matter not addressed on the agenda. 

But Mayor Tom Bates ended the meeting abruptly at 11 p.m., leaving at bay those waiting to address the council on non-agenda items. 

Bates has been experimenting since last year with varying the council rules to allow the public to comment on every item on the agenda and also on non-agenda items, something attorneys for SuperBOLD (Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense) said was missing. SuperBOLD had threatened to sue the city over the restrictions on public comment. 

Assistant City Clerk Deanna Despain told the Daily Planet that the clerk’s office tries to update the rules and make them available to the public but “if [the mayor] changes something, it’s up to him,” she said. 

Unaware that there had been people in the audience ready to speak on non-agenda items, Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, in a phone interview Wednesday, supported shutting down the meeting on time. “It’s not good to make decisions after 11 [p.m.],” he said, adding however, “We could manage our time better. Four hours should be enough.” 

While the last public speakers were not given voice at the meeting, the first half hour or so of the meeting, which began at 7 p.m., was devoted to “ceremonial items,” during which time the mayor and council usually honor various citizens. Councilmembers speak, and the honorees’ responses are not on the clock. Mayor Tom Bates at Tuesday’s meeting even encouraged people accompanying honorees to add their voices to the mix. 

“Tom Bates has stated emphatically that we’re going to end our meetings at 11,” Councilmember Kriss Worthington said on Wednesday. “In theory it’s a good idea, but there were several people in the audience who waited to speak on non-agenda items—they waited for four hours.”  

On the agenda was a resolution from Worthington, not addressed by the council on Tuesday, codifying rules for public comment. 

Councilmember Linda Maio, also interviewed Wednesday, said, “Anyone could have made a motion to extend [the meeting]. We were honoring Tom’s determination to end at 11.” 

“If the clock hits 11, the meeting just ends,” Bates’ Chief of Staff Cisco DeVries told the Planet. 

One set of rules, noted on a city clerk’s handout dated June 6, says, “Note: meetings will adjourn at 11 p.m. Any items outstanding at 11 p.m. will be carried over to a date certain.” The same memo relegates public comment on non-agenda items to the last item of business. 

“Tom’s been experimenting with different forms [of the agenda],” Maio said. “He agreed to try different approaches.”  

The mayor currently allows people to speak before every item on the agenda, which SuperBOLD attorneys from the First Amendment Project said was appropriate.  

In earlier iterations of the mayor’s rules, speakers on non-agenda items weighed in early in the meeting. 

Speaking to the Planet on Wednesday, Jane Welford of SuperBOLD acknowledged that the mayor has made progress in allowing public comment, but said that the public does not know what the rules are.  

“Getting the rules in writing would allow the public to know what the rules are ahead of time,” she said. 

Similarly Maio said: “They should be written clearly so that everyone knows what to expect.”  

“A lot of it is experimental. We have to settle it at some point,” said Councilmember Max Anderson. 

That’s what Councilmember Kriss Worthington had hoped to do with his resolution on Public Comment. The resolution, however, came up just minutes before 11 p.m. After speakers addressed the issue hurriedly, Councilmember Gordon Wozniak moved to table the item, but councilmembers declined to vote, saying the meeting had automatically expired at 11. 

Worthington’s draft rules for public comment will appear again on next week’s council agenda. 

And the public speakers on non-agenda items will possibly try their luck again. 

“This highlights a serious problem of putting public comment [on non agenda items] at the end of the agenda,” Arreguin said.