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SuperBOLD Awarded for Push for More Public Comment

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday April 01, 2008

When 90-plus-year-old Fran Rachel came to the Berkeley City Council in February to plead for the body’s approval of an item supporting peace, the speaker caused Councilmember Betty Olds to recall how she and friends had kept their children out of the Vietnam War through subterfuge.  

Olds said that, thanks to the speaker, she changed her mind and voted to support the item. 

Despite its reputation for free speech—which dates from the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in the 1960s—the Berkeley City Council only adopted liberal public speaking rules at the end of 2007. 

It took the threat of a lawsuit to do it. 

Before Gene Bernardi, Jane Welford and Jim Fisher of Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense (SuperBOLD) joined with the First Amendment Project of Oakland to threaten a lawsuit, only 10 people chosen by lottery were permitted to address the City Council at each meeting. 

On March 18, SuperBOLD received an award from the Society of Professional Journalists for Citizen Activism, based on its role in pressuring the council to change the rules and allow many more members of the public to speak at council meetings. 

First Amendment Project Attorney Sophia Cope wrote to the Berkeley city attorney in April of 2006: “The public comment lottery system improperly denies willing speakers the right to address the council and [library] board at public meetings and it improperly prevents certain agenda items from receiving public comment.” 

The First Amendment Project offered its services pro bono.  

After experimenting with various formulas for public speech, the council adopted new rules for public speaking at the end of last year. People may speak to every item on the council agenda if they wish. Five people can speak to items not on the agenda at the beginning of the meeting; others must wait until the end of the meeting. 

“SuperBOLD did an immense service by starting a lawsuit,” Councilmember Dona Spring told the Planet on Friday. 

Councilmember Linda Maio said she is of two minds on the new rules. “The speakers provide a good framework,” she said. At the same time, it makes the meetings longer. Maio said adding a third meeting to the two generally scheduled each month would not be a good solution since the break between meetings allows her time to study the issues. 

Bernardi said the new rules for public speaking are good—“when the mayor remembers to call for the public to speak”— but told the Planet she thinks the city ought to do better.  

If more than five people come to a meeting to speak on an item that is not on the agenda, some must wait until the end of the meeting, which may come as late as midnight. And meetings have been cut off without allowing the public to speak at the end. 

Bernardi says all speakers on non-agenda items should be able to address the council at the beginning of the meeting. 

She added that when there are large crowds that want to attend meetings, the meetings are not moved to a larger venue to accommodate them. “If [the public] can’t be in the council chambers, you can’t call it participatory democracy,” Bernardi said. 

Thanking SPJ for the award, SuperBOLD said: “The struggle for free speech continues and we hope this award will inspire the city of Berkeley to open its meetings to greater public participation and that it will inspire others to join us in this struggle.”