Bill Would Increase Public Speaking Opportunities at City Council Meetings

By: 
Bill Pearl

Includes provision curtailing abuse of telephone sign ups to block opposing speakers.

In early April, Mayor Robert Garcia embraced a high visibility hot button item to temporarily house unaccompanied migrant minors at the Long Beach Convention Center. When the controversial item came to the City Council, all but one public speaker (opposed on principle to incarcerating migrant children) spoke in support.

Supporters of the mayor-sought Convention Center item included a Garcia-appointed LB Harbor Commissioner, a Garcia-chosen city commissioner and one speaker was Mayor Garcia’s brother.

A city clerk tally showed that within a roughly 90-minute period, appointees and allies of Mayor Garcia signed up for over half the 20 telephone public speaker slots; by midmorning the next day, other Garcia supporters took the rest. The result at the council meeting was an echo chamber of support with no opposition voices heard.

One week later, a savvy advocate for a developer (that sought to build an LA river-adjacent commercial project instead of a park) applied the public testimony gambit. Within a less than three minute period, he entered 20 names, filling all the slots before opponents signed up.

At the council hearing, less than half of the names spoke when called, but the strategy worked. Again, opposition voices were effectively silenced.

On both items, no councilmember asked the city clerk to reopen sign ups to allow other speakers. During comment during Council proceedings on the developer item, the city clerk defended the 20 public speaker limit (applied since June 2020 without council opposition.)

However, through sheer coincidence, a Sacramento bill would curtail orchestrated public speakers and prevent arbitrary City Hall numerical limits on public speakers.

AB 339, supported by a lengthy list of open government and mainly progressive policy groups, proposes to require City Halls statewide to make permanent and enhance digital-era public speaking opportunities at local government meetings. Introduced on Jan. 28, 2021 by Assemblymembers Alex Lee (D, Milpitas) and Cristina Garcia (D, Downey/Bell Gardens), joined by co-authored by Assemblymembers Arambula, Cooley and Robert Rivas, the bill would also require local government bodies to allow telephonic public speakers beyond an arbitrary cut off number.

AB 339 provides in pertinent part: “Registration for public comment period is permitted, so long as instructions to register are posted, members of the public are able to register over the telephone and in person, and registration remains open until the comment period has finished for that agenda item. Information collected for registration purposes shall be limited to name, telephone number, and county of residence.”

Some salient portions:

54953.(b) All meetings shall include an opportunity for members of the public to attend via a telephonic option and an internet-based service option. For the purposes of this chapter, “internet-based service option” means a service or platform that allows two-way video and audio participation through the internet.

“...[T]he legislative body of a local agency may use teleconferencing for the benefit of the public and the legislative body of a local agency in connection with any meeting or proceeding authorized by law...

“If the legislative body of a local agency elects to use teleconferencing, it shall ... conduct teleconference meetings in a manner that protects the statutory and constitutional rights of the parties or the public appearing before the legislative body of a local agency... The agenda shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to address the legislative body directly pursuant to Section 54954.3 at each teleconference location.

“(5) (A) Unless there are any laws that prohibit in-person government meetings in the case of a declared state of emergency, including a public health emergency, all meetings shall include an in-person public comment opportunity, wherein members of the public can report to a designated site to give public comment in person. The location of the designated site and any relevant instructions on in-person commenting shall be included with the public posting of the agenda.

“(B) All meetings shall provide the public with an opportunity to comment on proposed legislation, both in person and remotely via a telephonic and an internet-based service option, and ensure the opportunity for the members of the public participating via a telephonic or an internet-based option to comment on agenda items with the same time allotment as a person attending a meeting in person.

“(C) Registration for public comment period is permitted, so long as instructions to register are posted, members of the public are able to register over the telephone and in person, and registration remains open until the comment period has finished for that agenda item. Information collected for registration purposes shall be limited to name, telephone number, and county of residence…”

AB 339’s authors initially proposed to end a double-standard and apply its provisions to state bodies as well as local government entities, but that provision apparently encountered Sac’to pushback and was removed.

The First Amendment Coalition (FAC) and multiple groups submitted a joint letter in support of AB 339. (The support letter can be viewed on FAC’s website at this link: https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/2021/04/fac-supports-ab-339s-open-me....)

A week earlier, the League of California Cities (a privately operated advocacy group to which the City of LB pays dues) joined by multiple other governmental advocacy groups signed an opposition letter.

The opposition letter argued that AB 339 “will purposefully add significant unfunded mandates on local public agencies by requiring public agencies to provide both call-in and internet-based options, in addition to in-person options, for members of the public to attend and comment during any public meeting.” (To view the opposition letter, click this link: https://ct3.blob.core.windows.net/21blobs/7f563b85-a91c-4a84-a348-01a032....)

AB 339’s first hearing will be on April 28 in the Assembly’s Committee on Local Government. Its eight current members include six Democrats and two Republicans. Assemblywoman Cecelia Aguiar-Curry (Chair, D), Vice chair Tom Lackey (R), Assemblymembers Richard Bloom (D), Tasha Boerner Horvath (D), James C. Ramos (D), Luz Rivas (D), Robert Rivas (D) and Randy Voepel (R).

Bill Pearl publishes lbreport.com, a local, online news source since August 2000.

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