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Is There Time for the First Amendment?

VOICES - This poem could have been entitled “Public Comment”: As I was walking down the stair/I met a man who wasn’t there./He wasn’t there, again, today./I wish that he would go away.
If you haven’t felt like “the man who wasn’t there” … then you haven’t given Public Comment before City Council or before any City Committees or before any City Commissions.

We all, committee chairs, committee members, Public Commenters and the audience, feel the conflicts between Time, Interest in the “Public Commenter” and the requirements of the First Amendment.  

Our meetings have only so much time and so much on the agenda that every agenda item gets chopped, abbreviated, truncated.  When will we learn and enable ourselves to prepare and present our arguments before they come to the decision-making committee?  Couldn’t most of that be done in sub-committees?

The topic under discussion by any and every speaker, board member and Public Commenter, is not “of interest” to everyone present.  Look at the vacant stares, the intense use of laptops, the side-bar conversations which occur with every comment.  We are frustrated when we have to wait for other agenda items before our agenda item comes up.  Then, as the final insult, the chairperson waves off the speaker with the nullifying phrase, “…thank you, next speaker.”

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants every American “right of free speech” and the “right to redress their grievances.”  The Brown Act requires that specific time be provided in all government meetings for Public Comment.   But the lack of time and the lack of interest of committee members and audience curtail and cancel our ability to realize our right.  

Do our committee chairs violate the law or, at least, the spirit of the First Amendment and the Brown Act by using these “devices” to “control” Public Comment?  Don’t we all want the committee to receive and incorporate our testimony in their deliberations?  How and when will we find ways to do that?  

Part of the answer is just simple courtesy from the chairperson and committee members.  Another part could be Brown Act-permitted brief responses from the chairperson and/or committee members indicating their agreement of disagreement with the comments … and … (more important) … a referral to a source to more fully hear and more directly respond to the issue.  That is, a REGULAR ombudsman who routinely helps direct the commenter to a resolution of the issue.

Some committees, notably the Neighborhood Councils and, recently, the LA City Council Redistricting Commission have instituted two periods for Public Comment; the first at the beginning of the meeting when the commenter has a bigger audience and one toward the end of the meeting so that comments generated by the proceedings of the meeting can be voiced.  

Does your committee, does your Neighborhood Council do this?

(Dan Wiseman is a long-time neighborhood council activist and Secretary of the Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates Committee.) –cw

Tags: public comment, First Amendment, Brow Act, City Council, Neighborhood Councils

Vol 9 Issue 101
Pub: Dec 20, 2011