Commentary: Council comment policy ensures fairness to all who attend
Costa Mesa City Council meetings are known for their robust citizen participation, and we are a better city for it.
Almost any agenda item draws multiple comments from residents. Even the seemingly routine items on the consent calendar, which in most cities pass with a single vote and no discussion, are often debated by members of the public for hours.
The byproduct of the healthy discussions is that the City Council often doesn’t get to the heart of its agenda — public hearings and old and new business — until deep into the evening, often not until 9 or 10 p.m. This sometimes disenfranchises those who would like to speak on those items but are unable to stay that late.
For the past several council meetings, I’ve enacted a compromise to make sure we get maximum citizen participation while doing the public’s business. For the public comment section of the meeting — when residents can talk about any concern not on the agenda — we now are collecting the names of anyone who would like to speak and then randomly selecting 10 people to give their comments. Those who aren’t picked are allowed and encouraged to speak at the end of the meeting.
This allows for about 30 minutes of public comments to kick off the meeting, but also sets a time limit — each speaker gets a maximum of three minutes — which helps the City Council get to the non-routine scheduled items on the agenda more quickly. Everyone still gets a turn at the microphone — the public comment segment is just split to bookend the council meeting.
I’ve made one other change: If a consent calendar item is flagged for discussion, that item is now discussed at the end of the meeting. This, again, allows for the City Council and the public to address the meat of the agenda — public hearings and new and old business — much earlier, which will boost participation from those who’d like to speak on those items.
There’s no perfect solution to ensuring maximum public discussion at our City Council meetings. Those who speak regularly during the public comments section have complained that it’s not fair that they might have to make their comments at the end of the meeting.
My position is that a balance needs to be struck to ensure fairness for all. Let’s continue to have public comments kick off each meeting. Let’s continue to keep the Costa Mesa tradition of allowing citizens to debate individual consent calendar items.
But let’s also look after residents — many of them newcomers to City Hall — who give up an evening to speak to the City Council about a development in their neighborhood, a new city program or a new ordinance the city has proposed.
They shouldn’t have to wait while the City Council spends two, three or four hours to go through public comments and the consent calendar sections of the agenda, which have traditionally been budgeted to take an hour total.
So far, the tailoring of the agenda has worked well. The new format has allowed for the public’s business to be conducted in a more timely and professional fashion, while bringing more balance and fairness to the process of deciding who gets to address the council earlier in the evening.
JIM RIGHEIMER is the mayor of Costa Mesa.