A divided Costa Mesa City Council formalized a policy early Wednesday that limits when members of the public can address the council about items not on the meeting agenda.
An unlimited number of speakers used to be able to talk at the start of sessions, but Mayor Jim Righeimer recently used his authority to limit public comments to 10 randomly chosen speakers at the beginning of the meeting and then an unlimited number at the end.
The council voted 3 to 2 about 1 a.m. Wednesday to codify the changes. Righeimer, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger and Councilman Gary Monahan voted in favor. Councilwomen Wendy Leece and Sandy Genis dissented.
Because meetings often last into the late night and early-morning hours, a group of City Hall regulars had argued that forcing some speakers to wait until the end stifles free speech.
Righeimer contended that his changes will keep the city’s business moving along, and people who come to speak on a particular agenda item — like rehabilitation homes or a controversial development — shouldn’t have to wait hours to do so, he said. The procedure for speaking about agenda items was not changed.
“There has to be some balance for everybody,” Righeimer said.
He also resurrected a policy of having speakers fill out cards asking for their names and addresses. Per state and federal laws, however, they are not required to give either — a point Righeimer and Genis have noted over the monthlong debate about the changes.
The item about public comments was placed on the consent calendar, which contains matters considered routine, but was pulled for a discussion that began about 11:55 p.m. Tuesday, nearly six hours after the meeting started. Leece argued that the item should have never been placed on the consent agenda.
Genis said that if the council was really concerned about getting business done quickly, then presentations, which can take an hour, should be moved to the study sessions.
“Those are good, but what does that have to do with getting the city business done?” Genis asked.
The “Costa Mesa Minute,” a video news segment, could also be curtailed, she said, as could the council’s own time to comment.
She also disagreed that one-on-one meetings with the council members over coffee — something officials sometimes offer speakers so they can hear them out later — is not a good substitute for speaking at City Hall, because the informal talks don’t establish an administrative record of what’s said.
“It may as well be in the wind,” Genis said.
Mensinger said many cities contain their public comments to the meeting’s end — including liberal Berkeley — after business is conducted.
A group of about 12 residents — nearly all of whom are City Hall regulars who spoke on several topics throughout the night and consistently side with Genis and Leece — expressed their dissatisfaction with Righeimer’s policy. They contended that it stifles the public’s right to free speech.
Depriving freedom of speech is “going into waters where I don’t believe we want to go,” Leece said.
Resident Terry Koken displayed a sign that read: “Freedom of speech delayed is freedom of speech denied.”
“You can hamper me, but you cannot silence me,” added Anna Vrska, a member of the Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee.
Chris McEvoy, a former council candidate who spearheaded an unsuccessful attempt to recall Righeimer earlier this year, told the council, “You guys signed up for this. This is what you wanted to do. This is what you get.”
Resident Perry Valantine said he researched the length of public comments within the past two years.
He reported that a per-meeting average of 11.5 people spoke for a total of 27 minutes.
Councilman Gary Monahan, who has served 17 years on the dais, including stints as mayor, said how a meeting is run is the mayor’s prerogative — a statement echoed by City Atty. Tom Duarte.
Genis and Leece disagreed, saying that the changes violate the municipal code.
Genis and Leece twice tried to thwart them before casting their dissenting votes. They made a motion to resurrect the policy that was in place before Righeimer’s changes. That motion failed, as did one later in the evening to merely receive and file Righeimer’s policy, not adopt it.