Commentary: Council rules are stifling public comment

Residents are being silenced in Costa Mesa. People like James H. Bridges.

Bridges is a kind gentleman who regularly attends our City Council meetings. Because of hearing loss and other disabilities, he sits in the front row, and it is easy for me to see him from my seat on the dais.

He often shares with me the many concerns he has about the direction our city is taking and often writes opinion pieces for the local newspapers. He’s the kind of engaged resident who makes for a healthy Costa Mesa, and I consider him a friend. He was injured in an accident some time ago, no longer drives and depends on public transportation.

Because of limited bus schedules, physical discomfort and living arrangements, Bridges must leave well before meetings adjourn.

As I got my papers ready before the last council meeting, I noticed Bridges dutifully filling out a card to speak during the public comments section — where attendees have up to three minutes to discuss any city matter not on the agenda — and handing it into our city clerk. It turned out that he would never be heard that evening.

I have always enjoyed listening to public comments, whether as a civilian or up on the dais as an elected representative. It’s that time when Costa Mesans can engage the City Council about whatever is on their minds regarding our city. It’s America, and this is our 1st Amendment rights in action.

I remember how scared I was speaking as a concerned resident to the council many years ago. When I was a homemaker raising my five children, it was a challenge getting everything organized so I could leave the kids with my husband and drive to City Hall to put in my two cents at public comment time.

But I always knew that I could speak early in the evening. That’s the way it was in Costa Mesa. Residents first. Until several months ago.

That’s when the mayor decided to change the traditional system that had worked well for decades and decreed that just 10 lucky residents — selected by a lottery — could speak at the start of the meeting. The rest would have to wait until the end — keeping them waiting often until after midnight.

I opposed this change because I believe it disenfranchised our residents and discouraged them from even coming to a council meeting. The mayor claimed to have done this as a way to speed up the meeting so the council’s “business” could be done more efficiently.

Well, first of all, the council’s primary business is listening to its constituents. Second, if the meetings are too long, the mayor could shorten his own comments and tighten up special presentations (which are nice, but shouldn’t push aside public comments).

The mayor isn’t done trying to curb free speech in Costa Mesa. At our last meeting, the council majority passed the first reading of an ordinance that would make it even more challenging for residents to speak. And if they get out of line (in the mayor’s opinion), he could even have them removed, and they could be charged with a misdemeanor.

Why is the mayor doing all this? I think he’s afraid of any opposition to the council majority. For example, by limiting public comments to 10 speakers at the start of the meeting, he knows that many of those remaining will give up, not wanting to wait until late in the evening to be heard.

His plan to chill free speech at council meetings is working. Many times, Bridges didn’t get picked in the initial lottery and had to leave. At our last meeting, Bridges wasn’t one of the 10 lucky speakers picked in the mayor’s lottery, and he had to catch his bus and couldn’t wait until the meeting’s end at 12:30 a.m.

So he left, silenced.

What did he want to say? What was his concern? We don’t know. Once again, Bridges was denied his 1st Amendment right to speak to the City Council. What a shame.

WENDY LEECE is a Costa Mesa City Council member.