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Costa Mesa council to revisit rules of public comments at meetings

If you want to address the Costa Mesa City Council about something that's not on the night's agenda, you might have a long wait.

Negative reaction, primarily from City Hall regulars, has grown since the quiet implementation a few weeks ago of Mayor Jim Righeimer's adjusted process for hearing public comments.

Now, instead of an unlimited number of people awaiting a turn at the lectern at the beginning of the council meeting, only 10 randomly chosen speakers will be allowed the standard three minutes to talk.

The remaining members of the public can have their say hours later, after the public hearings and other matters are finished, which at some sessions can be as late as midnight.

The city has also resurrected a policy of having speakers put their names and addresses on cards before they go to the podium.

Although the mayor and his supporters say shortening public comments at the beginning of the council meeting will help speed up decision-making on city business, others contend that the changes are squelching residents' ability to air their views by forcing them to wait for hours for the chance to speak.

After the concerns about the policy were brought up during the Nov. 19 council session, city officials decided to reexamine the issue, possibly as soon as the panel's Dec. 3 meeting. The changes may be made official via a resolution or majority vote of the council.

Righeimer said his policy "will give more balance to make sure things stay on track." He wants to see public hearings and council decisions come earlier in the evening and not be pushed back because of public comments.

He said the council has "to balance out speech for everybody," which includes those talking about general topics and those who are there to speak up on specific items on the agenda.

The latter speakers, Righeimer said, sometimes unfairly have to wait hours before they get their chance.

"We want to make sure that people don't have to wait until 11 or 12 o'clock at night for an item to be voted on," he said, adding that "everyone who comes, who wants to speak, will have a time to speak."

During the Nov. 5 council meeting, Councilwoman Sandy Genis said she was skeptical of the notion that the public comments make the meetings drag on.

She said her calculations showed that the council's own commenting period, more often than not, takes up more time than the public's. She also noted that people are not legally required to give their names or addresses on the cards in order to speak.

"I don't think that the meetings are being delayed by the public," Genis said in a follow-up interview. "After all, who's ultimately in charge here? The people. At least, they're supposed to be."

Robin Leffler, president of Costa Mesans for Responsible Government, said she was appalled by the changes.

"To me, it's a clear-cut effort to minimize input from the public," she said.

During the Nov. 19 council meeting, Councilwoman Wendy Leece read the 1st Amendment and said the changes make it "extremely difficult" for residents to fulfill their constitutional rights of free speech.

In March 2012, then-Mayor Eric Bever suggested moving the entire public comment portion toward the end of the meeting in an effort to improve alleged bad behavior.

The council, Bever included, ended up voting against the idea — a move the audience applauded.

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