Commentary: Mayor should assemble a 'team of rivals'

The recent anniversary of the Gettysburg Address was a reminder of what a remarkable orator and President Abraham Lincoln was. Years ago, I visited the Lincoln Memorial and read that speech, along with his second inaugural address, which is also inscribed there. In modern terms, both speeches are so compact, yet so expressive.

Lincoln was also remarkable in that he assembled his Cabinet from the "team of rivals" against whom he competed in the 1860 presidential election, men who would help him govern our nation during a time of war and change. By surrounding himself with his critics, he was better able to judge how the nation would react to his decision to issue executive orders.

In Costa Mesa we have a different approach to "rivals." Mayor Jim Righeimer has tried to discourage public comment by his critics — interested citizens who faithfully attend City Council meetings and devote considerable time to civic issues.

As reported in the Daily Pilot article "New Comments Policy Codified" [Dec. 5], in early November the mayor unilaterally divided public comment into two parts — 10 speakers at the beginning of the meeting and the rest at the end.

He also changed the policy about speaker cards, making them mandatory and thus eliminating the right to speak anonymously. The mayor accomplished these amendments by executive order.

The mayor's complaint was that too many speakers take up too much time. Although there have been times when public comment has consumed more time than usual because of controversial issues, in recent years that part of the meeting has taken less time than the council members' own comment period.

Speakers from the public have three minutes each, while the mayor and other council members can talk as long as they like. The mayor often interrupts speakers and then compensates them with extra time, a practice that also extends the length of public comment, but the average public comment period is less than 30 minutes.

On Dec. 3, the mayor and council members Gary Monahan and Steve Mensinger voted to modify the resolution that governs the order of business. Splitting public comment and requiring speaker cards obstruct dissent. Since the trailed public comment period would most likely occur after midnight, the new policy places a hardship on residents, particularly the elderly and disabled.

For some residents it takes great effort to arrive at 6 p.m. To be told to wait for three to six hours to bring a matter to the council's attention is burdensome. And even if they endure, their concern would receive no discussion, and the council couldn't provide direction to staff.

Speaking should not be by lottery. It is a right, not a prize. The process of making it a contest is denigrating to the right of free speech and makes those who don't make the initial cut second-class citizens.

Lincoln used his critics to test his convictions because he believed them to be moral. Mayor Righeimer and the other council members have a duty to serve all of the people of Costa Mesa, regardless of how adverse, inconvenient or unwelcome that may be.

The final words of the Gettysburg Address are a worthy reminder to Righeimer of the residents' function in our city: "and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

CYNTHIA MCCDONALD lives in Costa Mesa.

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