On Tuesday July 17, the City Council will take up the issue of how public comment at Council meetings is structured. We will be deciding who gets to address the Council and how long they will get to speak.
The rules for public comment drafted by Mayor Bates are unfair. They give the Mayor total discretion over who can speak and how much time is allowed per speaker, as well as over the time allotted per topic. Members of the public and Councilmem-bers deserve fairness, impartiality and certainty in knowing in advance of the meeting from whom and for how long comment will be taken.
The Mayor’s proposal essentially allows all public comment (even during land-use public hearings) to be dictated by his own likes and dislikes. He has a past record of sometimes being quite arbitrary in the use of his discretion, both about who he allows to speak and how long he will let people speak. The people and topics he likes tend to get to speak for longer time periods than those he does not. This approach violates the spirit of fair play as well as the Brown Act.
The re-examination of the historical 30 minutes of public comment allowed at the beginning of the council meeting was triggered by the threat of a lawsuit from BOLD (Berkeleyans Organized for Library Defense) and the First Amendment Center. At first the Mayor was experimenting with different approaches and more members of the public were getting to speak, which was all to the public good. Unfortunately now however, as the experimental phase has come to an end, the Mayor seems to be using this opportunity for improving public access as a means to hijack public comment so he can have the maximum ability to control who gets to speak and for how long. At a recent meeting, when Councilmember Kriss Worthington spoke up for people who had requested to address the council, the Mayor angrily responded by twice demanding that Councilmember Worthing-ton’s microphone be cut off.
The Mayor has a dismal record on supporting the public’s involvement in their city government:
1) in 2002, on the day of the election, when the Daily Californian newspaper endorsed former Mayor Shirley Dean instead of him, he threw out in the trash a large stack of their newspapers and then lied to the editor of the Daily Californian when asked about the theft;
2) his original proposal for the “rules committee” after he was first elected gave him the power to stall, essentially to veto, any topic that he did not want on the Council agenda from either a Council-member or a Commission;
3) two years ago he attempted to dramatically reduce the number of Commis-sions and the times they could meet—this was only defeated by a strong response from affected Commissioners;
4) after repeatedly promising the public that he was going to make any city agreement with UC on its long-range development proposal public before it was adopted by the Council, he got the majority on the City Council to approve a secret backroom deal that was not released to the public until it was already a done deal, thereby depriving citizens of the ability to bring suit on the severely flawed Environmental Impact Report.
Unless there is a strong response from the public, the Mayor’s proposal is likely to pass this City Council. Calls and e-mails will help stop it. Come to the meeting at 2134 Martin Luther King Way tonight at 7 p.m. to fight for the future of free speech at the Berkeley City Council. Urge the Council to set this matter for a special meeting/workshop to flush out the issues and to fully discuss the pros and cons of the alternative methods of structuring public comment proposed by Council-member Worthington and myself. (How ironic it is that we have to fight Berkeley’s Mayor for our legal right to public comment in the cradle of the Free Speech Movement?!)
Dona Spring is a Berkeley Councilmember.