Commentary: Keep public comments at beginning of the meeting


Costa Mesa residents have long valued their three minutes to publicly comment at City Council meetings. During the alloted time, they have an opportunity to ask a question, make a complaint or share a concern.

Many have made dinner for their families, prepared their comments and arrived nervous at City Hall, ready to take their place in line to speak to the council when the public comments time begins.

First Amendment, you know. Democracy in action.

Sometimes during public comments, while listening to the speakers, others have decided to step up to the microphone to talk extemporaneously about an issue they care about. They had not planned to speak but were moved to do so.


Now that opportunity to speak at the beginning of the meeting is being limited so that the city’s business can be run more efficiently. I’m all for efficiency but not at the expense of a basic principle of human liberty: free speech.

If you don’t arrive in time to submit your card, and your name is not in the top 10 cards chosen, you have to wait until the end of the meeting to address the council, according to the mayor’s recommended changes. How sad.

The council serves the people. If Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech,” then the City Council shouldn’t either.

The people of Costa Mesa who speak during public comments are just as important as others who come to address issues on the agenda or support projects under consideration. If the issue involves Costa Mesa residents, and it is clear many are in the chambers to speak, then the mayor has the prerogative to move that item up on the agenda, so that those residents don’t have to sit through a long meeting before commenting.

Others who sit in the chambers may not be residents. They may have a financial interest in what is before the council and may be getting paid to sit and wait until their item comes up. They can wait their turn.

Sometimes our meetings go past midnight, and it’s unfair to make residents wait that long. This new process will discourage residents from coming to meetings and participating in local government. We should be encouraging engagement, not sending people home before they have a chance to speak because they didn’t win the draw.

Public comments sometimes take up an hour or so, but the views of residents are important, allowing the council to take the pulse of Costa Mesa. Last week an Eastside resident expressed serious concern about seeing more criminals on our streets from realignment releases. Now the police chief will follow up with a report on how the city is handling these early releases.

Often a speaker shares an important upcoming event. Another may inform the council of a drainage or traffic problem. Most of the comments can be addressed with a speedy solution often acknowledged by the city manager during his report and delegated to staff for follow-up.

Nothing compares to exercising our 1st Amendment right to express ourselves verbally to elected officials and government staff. I have spoken before the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) Board, the Orange County Board of Supervisors, the state and county boards of education, and the Newport-Mesa school board.

I am always nervous. None of these elected boards limited the time allowed for public comments.

Freedom of speech is about to be repressed in Costa Mesa. Many people are against it. Former Mayor Eric Bever reconsidered making changes to the public comment portion of meetings after a public outcry. I hope Mayor Jim Righeimer reconsiders as well.

We may not enjoy or care about some of the comments, but council members need to hear all views. Listening to the public is not wasting time. We signed up for this.

Denying residents the opportunity to speak, making it difficult, is restructuring democracy to fit into a nice mold so the meeting runs better for the council’s convenience. It’s also breaking a commitment to open and transparent government in Costa Mesa.

WENDY LEECE is a Costa Mesa city councilwoman.