But first I wanted to learn from the experts. Nearly all of those who speak up during the general comment period, it turns out, are well known to the council because only the same handful of people show up every time. Three regulars -- Matt Dowd, Mike Hunt and Zuma Dogg -- started attending a year and half ago after they'd been thrown off Venice Beach for selling stuff without a license. Stuff, they argued in meeting after meeting, that has religious significance and is protected under the 1st Amendment. Exactly what religion requires shea butter is unclear, though if it does exist, I'm sure its leader will be arrested by the ATF.
Public comment: The Jan. 4 Joel Stein column said that the state's Brown Act requires the Los Angeles City Council to set aside time at its meetings for public comment, and that the law is interpreted differently by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and the Legislature. In fact, the Legislature is not covered by the Brown Act. Also, the implication that the Board of Supervisors' interpretation disallows public comment is incorrect: Any individual may comment on one agenda item per board meeting, or on a non-agenda item once every three months. —
Zuma Dogg is the undisputed master of the general comment genre, having progressed far beyond debating shea butter. One month, he spent 2,000 cellphone minutes talking to community activists and then crafted their complaints about housing, public schools and special-event fee waivers into singing, dancing, rapping rants. Zuma is so devoted to City Council meetings that he's abandoned his public-access television show, is sleeping in his van and, it seems, gave up his day job. "My day job is I'm Zuma Dogg, yo," he told me. "Batman doesn't say what he does when he isn't Batman."
After studying video of Zuma's speeches -- the meetings are aired on Time Warner's Channel 35 and archived on the council's website -- I showed up at City Hall on a Friday a few weeks ago, filled out a card and waited for my turn. But first I got to listen to a lot of children sing because it was "music week." And then the people who taught them to sing had to be recognized by the council. And it turned out that one of the teachers was becoming a citizen soon, so he had to be re-recognized for that. Also, an El Salvadoran artist needed to be honored. A Chihuahua had to be adopted. And Councilman Bill Rosendahl had to spend 10 minutes congratulating American Tours International on its 30th anniversary. I'm going to take a wild guess that American Tours International contributed some money to Rosendahl.
General comment time finally started with an elderly black woman who used her two minutes to tell a confusing but sad story about her housing situation. Then she asked the council for a loan of $2.7 million, which may or may not have been for the slum she lorded over. Daniel Weissman complained about electricity price increases, and Arnold Sax questioned the legitimacy of light-rail fare increases. All three are council meeting regulars. Zuma Dogg, sadly, later told me he had taken the week off for the holidays. I'm not sure that's how Batman works his calendar.
For my allotted two minutes, I walked to the lectern, addressed the council and said:
"I get it: Children need to sing, Armenians need to be given plaques. But this general comment time is too much. I know from getting reader mail that the last thing anyone wants is for the public to speak. What good has ever come from these general comments? Has a Chihuahua ever been adopted? Has Zuma Dogg gotten a rap career? In this age of YouTube, people have plenty of chances to be heard. I am wasting time and money right now. So let's vote now to end general comment. Thank you."
After I finished -- in just 53 seconds -- Deputy City Atty. Dion O'Connell explained that a state law called the Brown Act requires that time be set aside for public testimony. (Though, it turns out, that's not the way the California Legislature and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors interpret it.) Council President Eric Garcetti added, "But council member Alarcon, for the record, likes the way you think."
I thought the meeting would end then. But there were 30 minutes of debate on whether to declare Dec. 1 Rosa Parks Day. This debate consisted of nearly every council member talking about how awesome Rosa Parks was before passing the declaration unanimously. Then Councilman Jose Huizar explained how, though his first love is the Cal football team, because he got his undergraduate degree there, he was going to root for his law school alma mater, UCLA, that weekend over USC. At least Zuma Dogg doesn't resume-drop.
The weirdest part of the meeting was that, when I wasn't looking, the council passed $29 million in bonds for affordable housing, gave 11 neighborhoods street lighting for the first time and reinstated commuter express buses. All of which took about four minutes because the details were worked out in committee.
The rest of the three hours was bread and circus. Which I understand is a big part of politics. But I want my circus to inspire me, or at least be done in front of an audience.
Instead, a lot of politics is like a kids' soccer league, making everyone feel good about themselves with trophies for participation, good attitude and loving Rosa Parks. Which is really a waste of time -- at least until the City Council comes to its senses and declares a Joel Stein Day.