The Burbank City Council is attempting to rework its agenda format and meeting procedures to allow for more public participation.
However, the suggestions made by city staff on Tuesday — which included having a five-minute public comment period only on consent-calendar and non-agendized items, not allowing council members to respond to public comments and not allowing applause in the council chambers — did not sit well with several residents, who claimed the proposed modifications would restrict their speaking time and infringe on their First Amendment rights.
The City Council opted to table further discussion on the tweaks until Oct. 24 to allow staff to incorporate the changes to the agenda format and procedures that council members asked be made, including allowing council members to respond to speakers after public comment and having a three-minute opening public comment section on any city topic and agendized item.
Should any future modifications to the agenda format be made, council members asked that they be set up for a trial period instead of the changes being permanent right away.
Kristen Hauptli, an administrative analyst for the city, provided an overview of the initial proposed changes and how they could get more residents to participate during the meetings.
One of the proposed changes involved changing how the public comment period would work. City staff proposed to create different comment periods — a three-minute period near the beginning of the meeting when people could comment on anything on the consent calendar and non-agendized items and three-minute comment periods for each agendized item, including study sessions, public hearings and any reports to the City Council.
Burbank currently has a five-minute public comment period on any item or issue as well as public hearings. There is also a three-minute public comment period at the end of the meeting.
“In making these changes, individuals would have multiple opportunities to speak,” Hauptli said.
Another proposed change involved a new public comment card that speakers would have to fill out. Hauptli said city staff would use one card, and each speaker would indicate what item they would like to address. If there was an item that a member of the public felt strongly about but did not want to speak before council members, they could mark on the card whether they support, oppose or are neutral on the issue.
The city currently has color coded cards for the different comment periods that only ask for the speaker’s name and what item they would like to address.
Resident David Spell took issue regarding the proposed revamped card, saying that interest groups could take advantage of the “straw polling” element of the comment cards.
“The problem I have is, what if we have a member of the Burbank Board of Realtors or some other interest group comes over and gives you a giant stack [of comment cards] that they’ve passed around the neighborhood?” Spell said. “I think it should be a requirement that when that person’s name is read that they are in the room.”
Many residents were not in favor of a procedural change that involved the City Council’s response to public comments. Currently, council members are allowed to briefly respond to any comments made during a comment period.
Joseph McDougall, senior assistant city attorney for Burbank, reminded council members there is a legal boundary about addressing the public during a meeting. Referencing the Brown Act, McDougall said members of the City Council or any governing board cannot take action on or discuss any item that is not on the agenda. However, city staff and city attorneys can briefly respond.
“What I always tell the public is they have an absolute right to come here and speak on any matter within your subject matter or jurisdiction,” McDougall said. “They can come and speak, but this body owes a duty to the public who wasn’t on notice that this body was going to deliberate on something. You can’t talk about something you didn’t tell them you were going to talk about.”
McDougall added that the more appropriate practice to address non-agendized items would be to ask that the city manager put that issue on the next agenda to be discussed.
However, resident Oscar Merlo said he thinks the changes would infringe on his First Amendment rights and accused the city of trying to silence its residents.
“It completely cuts off the voice of the average citizen, prioritizing instead the views and opinions of unelected staff members and city attorney,” he said.
Merlo also had concerns about a proposed change that asked the public to refrain from applauding after each speaker is done addressing the City Council.
“It has to be one of the most courteous ways to exercise your rights to freedom of speech,” Merlo said. “Whoever wrote this, what are you thinking? Did we contract this out to Russians or North Koreans?”