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Santa Cruz Indymedia | Government & Elections

Mayor Coonerty's New Rules Ban Public Comment on Half of City Council Afternoon Agenda
by Robert Norse
Tuesday Feb 26th, 2008 11:35 AM
On becoming Santa Cruz Mayor last November, Ryan Coonerty laid down a new set of procedures at City Council requiring members of the Public to get his permission before talking on "Consent Agenda" subjects. The afternoon Consent agenda makes up more than half of what City Council acts on. Hence this new ruling removes Public Comment on the majority of Council actions. This is the deepest cut in Public Comment since since Mayor Rotkin sharply cut back the Public Speaking time in a bd to silence critics.
THE CONSENT AGENDA AND WHAT IT'S ABOUT

City Council's twice-a-month meetings have afternoon and evening sessions.

By far the most agenda items and subjects typically happen at the 3 PM session during the Consent Agenda.

This is a collection of items ranging from 6 to 30 separate items, which make up the nuts and bolts of city business. The items are regarded as "non-controversial" by City Manager Dick Wilson's staff and by Mayor Coonerty. However they usually involve hundreds of thousands of dollars and involve rubber-stamping decisions made by Wilson's staff.

Traditionally, members of the public could require the Council remove an item for comment by the public. Such comment was usually limited to 3 minutes.

In 2005, then-Mayor Rotkin further limited comment on the entire Consent agenda to 5 minutes. So, if you wanted to talk on two items, you could only talk 3 minutes on one and then 2 on the next one and were banned from speaking on any other items. I was arrested for "disrupting a Council meeting" when I came up and stood at the microphone waiting for my time to speak on the forbidden third item as I'd already spoken for five minutes on the previous two items. (Charges were dropped 16 months later)


COONERTY'S NEW GAG RULE

Coonerty's new rules, as explained by the Deputy City Clerk yesterday (and by Rotkin and Coonerty at the last Council meeting) are as follows: If you want to talk about an item on the Consent Agenda, you have a 2-minute period to explain to the Council why they should allow you to do so. However, during this time, according to Coonerty, you cannot talk about the "substance" of the item, until given permission to do so if the Council chooses to remove it from the Consent Agenda and allow a separate discussion on it.

So you are in the strange position of trying to persuade the Council that they should let you talk about the item, without discussing the details of what the item is actually about.

Coonerty and Rotkin have explained this procedure is being used to speed up the process, save staff time, and save the city money. It also saves the Council the necessity of hearing what the public says.


VIOLATING THE BROWN ACT

Coonerty's new rules also violate the Brown Act, the Public Meetings Act, which guarantees the public the right to attend meetings, speak on items, and have Council members conduct their discussions openly.

Government code 54954.3. (a) reads quite clearly:

"Every agenda for regular meetings shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body on any item of interest to the public, before or during the legislative body's consideration of the item, that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body..."


FIRST AMENDMENT WATCHDOG GROUP WEIGHS IN

The California First Amendment Coalition, a San Francisco-based attorney watchdog group at
http://www.cfac.org/Lawyers/Denyingpubliccomment.php gives the following advice under the heading "Denying public comment" :

"Q: Can a City Council deny public comment on an agendized item? ...
A: Government Code Section 54954.3(a), requires public bodies to allow public comments not only on agenda items but on any item of interest subject to the body's jurisdiction. The only exception to the public testimony requirement is where a committee comprised solely of members of the legislative body has previously considered the item at a public meeting in which all members of the public were afforded the opportunity to comment on the item before or during the committee's consideration of it, so long as the item has not substantially changed since the committee's hearing. Gov't Code § 54954.3(a)."


MAYOR COONERTY'S RATIONALE

In a memo to city staff and public which City Council staffer Jane read to me yesterday on the phone, Mayor Coonerty claimed his new rules were "following the practices of the Board of Supervisors and the City of Watsonville, citizens will have two minutes to request that council members pull one or more items for debate. If an item is pulled, the citizens will have two [additional] minutes to speak the item."

Coonerty has described his new gag rule and the shortening of Oral Communications as being done "in order to expand access to the political process and increase efficiency for community members, councilmembers and city staff."

He further rhapsodizes "If every city council meeting is shortened by 2 hours, the equivalent of giving city staff an additional work week to serve the city. Shortened city council meetings allow more working people to attend the meetings and serve on city council. Shortened city council meetings allow the media to more effectively cover council actions and decisions. More voices and less time."


THE REALITY BEHIND COONERTY'S RHETORIC

In fact, the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors (according to one of the clerks there) ALWAYS allows public comment on consent agenda items (i.e. it is not subject to a vote by the Board). If a member of the public wants an item pulled off, it is pulled off, renumbered, and placed at the end of the agenda. (The same is also true of Oral Communications, so all members of the public who want to speak, can. Some, however, have to wait until the end of the meeting).

The Watsonville City Council (according to Council worker Beatrix reached today by phone) also ALWAYS allows the public to speak on any item on the consent agenda, but they do it in a period before the Consent Agenda is voted on. They do NOT have a discussion of whether a member of the public should be given permission to speak. People who want to are just allowed to speak.


OTHER RESTRICTIONS ON PUBLIC COMMENT

Coonerty has also divided and cut back Oral Communications time from 3 minutes to 2 minutes. Oral Communications is the time when you can raise issues not on the Agenda, i.e rent control, police abuse, homeless harassment, council's investment in Iraqi war profiteers--all those items the Council chooses to ignore.

In addition, Coonerty has split Oral Communications time between the afternoon and the evening sessions (10 minutes at the first and 20 minutes at the second). While this is more convenient for some who have time during the afternoon, it shortens the amount of time in the evening, when people are more generally available.

Coonerty has continued the discredited practice of eliminating evening agendas (as he has done with today's Council meeting--there's no evening session). Instead everything is crammed onto a long afternoon session--which provides the pretext to shorten comment time on agenda items.

Also Oral Communications today is at a time uncertain at the end of the afternoon agenda. In other words, to speak for two minutes, you have to wait two hours (at least), because Coonerty won't schedule the time at the beginning of the 3 PM session (as he does when there is an afternoon and an evening session). I suppose it saves "staff time" by reducing the number of speakers at Oral Communications. Who wants to wait hours to speak at Oral Communications? You have to be there physically to reserve your place in line. You don't know when the speaking time will be. Not many people have the stamina and determination to do this.

Cost-cutting Coonerty, of course, has no problem with huge overtime police expenditures
(see http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2008/02/24/18481449.php).

When 3-4 squad cars show up to arrest a homeless person a warrant for "sitting on the sidewalk" on Pacific Avenue or police spend city dollars harassing and surveilling the Wednesday Afternoon Drum Circle next to the Farmer's Market as part of his Parking Lot Panic Law enforcement (http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2008/01/23/18474460.php), you can get an idea of Coonerty's priorities.


A LITTLE BIT OF 'UP' AND A LOT OF 'DOWN'

To his credit, Coonerty has also cut back staff time to 10 minutes (we'll see if he means this). Staff, traditionally conservative, has often been given unlimited time to present their agenda, without any kind of questioning from the public and often little of substance from City Council.

But significantly, unlike the federal legislature, Councilmembers themselves can babble on for as long as they wish without time limits.

There is also no procedure for the public to put an item on the agenda other than begging City Council members to do so. In Santa Monica, by contrast, one can use an independent process (which, admittedly, goes through the city manager's office).



ROTKIN ON THE RADIO SUNDAY MARCH 2ND

I shall be discussing this matter and others with Councilmember (and Shadow Mayor) Mike Rotkin on Sunday on Free Radio Santa Cruz at 101.1 FM (http://www.freakradio.org) 10-11 AM. Tune in. And call in at 831-427-3772.

Mayor Coonerty has been invited, but repeatedly declined, insisting that I am a person unworthy of a response (http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2007/12/22/18468436.php). Coonerty's message phone is 831-423-8939 if anyone wants to make a direct inquiry or present an opinion.

I'll also be speaking at City Council today at 3 pm during the afternoon session.

I will suggest that Council revisit all items passed on the last four consent Agenda items. After all, Coonerty effectively closed down Public Comment periods for discussion of Consent Agenda items for one meeting in December, two in January, and two in February with confusing and restrictive rules that discouraged the public from comment.
.

SAD TRUTH IN CONCLUSION

Fighting these little battles with City Council to restore the pittance of time allowed the community often feels like a futile and losing battle.

Even if Coonerty followed the bad Mathews-Rotkin model of allowing a maximum of 5 minutes for public comment on the important but overlooked Consent Agenda, the Council could and would probably muzzle and ignore critics, as they've done in the past. Staff members and Council blowhards get all the time they want. Members of the public, even if publicly appointed Commissioners. Eric True, Vice-Chair of the Measure K Commission at the last City Council meeting got only 2 minutes while the pro-police department staff member Tina Shull got 5-10 minutes.

But it's important for the community to know how and why the city is being gentrified, public comment is being cut back, and power is being transferred to staff and government officials. Hence this article.

The only time Council listens is when people show up in significant numbers (then they jump in front of the parade, try to calm people down, shut them up, and take credit for the most vanilla-ized version of their concerns). Or when they're seriously threatened with a lawsuit. Or when an initiative is taken to the voters (though that can be sabotaged as Measure K was--see http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2007/10/08/18452900.php .