Commentary: Return to Costa Mesa's old comments' policy

I figured it's about time I break my self-imposed silence and comment on the recent changes at Costa Mesa City Hall. I am especially fortunate to have a forum like this to offer my opinions. If I was in Mayor Jim Righeimer's council chambers I'm not so sure I'd have the same opportunity.

In the early-morning hours on Dec. 4, Righeimer codified a change in the way citizens can express themselves at council meetings. Overturning decades of a fair and widespread municipal practice, he now limits public comment in the beginning of the meeting to 10 lucky souls selected by lottery (granting three minutes each), and allows anyone else to speak only after the council dispenses with the rest of the city's business.

And that new time for public comment is often several hours later.

What's the cause for such a drastic change? According to Righeimer, the council doesn't get to the heart of its agenda — public hearings and old and new business — until late into the evening. But he acknowledges that he also wants "to ensure maximum public participation."

Righeimer claims that his new format "allows 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."

On its face, this sounds reasonable.

Who wouldn't want orderly and efficient public meetings? Who would object to a fair and balanced civic process? Who doesn't want to go home earlier?

But reason and facts are not driving this change. Dozens of citizens, joined by our two councilwomen, pointed out quite plainly that over the past few years the public comment period has not, on average, exceeded the expected 30 minutes. In contrast, the council member comment period has lengthened considerably since the mayor ascended to the chairperson's seat. In fact, it is often much longer than the entire public comment period.

The simple fact is that an overwhelming majority of those who speak at public meetings use their limited time to critique and object to the council majority's decisions. Over three years, these vigilant folks have offered poignant questions and well-reasoned criticism. And that is their right.

Would the mayor institute the same rules if, for example, a parade of his supporters regularly took to the podium and sang the council's praises for hours on end? Would he make them wait until after the city's business is completed before they could compliment the "timely and professional" administration of public meetings?

The message to the community is clear now: Public comment is legally required but superfluous and making decisions about the real issues is the important stuff the mayor and his colleagues were elected to do.

As with many issues in Costa Mesa, the council majority has failed to demonstrate a need to change the status quo. This time, however, the change flies in the face of common courtesy, civility and decorum. It's another unnecessary move that deepens the divide in our community.

Mayor Righeimer should repeal these new rules and return to the fair and traditional process. That would be the decent thing to do.

Eastside Costa Mesa resident JEFFREY HARLAN is a former Daily Pilot columnist.

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