In the Pipeline: The public wants its voice

I like it when City Hall is packed and public comments at the meetings take hours. Those are signs that our system is working and that people care about what their elected officials are doing when it comes to running the city.

April 21 was one of those nights. Councilman Dave Sullivan attempted to place the plastic bag ban on the November ballot, an issue that drew a large crowd. The ban was narrowly approved by the council in the fall but now some want the matter put to a public vote.

By my observation, both sides were well-represented. Those in favor of a public vote outnumbered the opposing side — but not by much. As one of the public speakers, I said that even though I support a ban on plastic bags, I think the people should have a say.

For me, any issue that affects hundreds of business people and tens of thousands of residents is worthy of a public vote. I believe that the will of the people collectively is more important than what you or I think.

This issue is clearly a polarizing one in Huntington Beach, and if both sides on the City Council are confident in their viewpoints, there should be no problem laying it out for a vote.

Yes, it has been hashed out many times before at council meetings. But does anything really replace a vote? Talk about it 100 times at meetings, and still my mind wouldn't be changed. This issue is just too big and raises too many questions — like why all of a sudden do stores have to charge for paper bags?

I also think the public's right to vote on major issues will become the defining issue of November's election. We heard from several candidates for City Council on Monday.

Billy O'Connell, executive director of Colette's Children's Home, and Planning Commissioner Mike Posey both spoke out in favor of allowing the public to vote, while Planning Commissioner Mark Bixby sided with Mayor Pro Tem Joe Shaw and Council members Connie Boardman, Jill Hardy and Jim Katapodis, who argued against having a vote and who prevailed once votes were counted.

The issue of what we are allowed to vote on as residents blew up outside of council chambers as well. Online comments ran intense, and resident Michael Daly formed a Facebook discussion group called Huntington Beach Community Forum.

Within hours, dozens of Huntington Beach voters, including several key local officials, had joined the group, and soon there would be nearly a couple of hundred more. Daly, a 39-year-old underwriter for a private mortgage lender, told me he thought the timing was right for a discussion group to debate issues of importance to Huntington Beach voters.

And he'd like to see every council member and candidate join the group.

If a hot-button issue like this can motivate voters to become more involved, that's wonderful, and again, I like seeing City Hall full of loud and passionate people. But there is something about that night that bothered me.

The applause seemed mutually respectful, if a bit boisterous at times, and I see nothing wrong with that — it just added to the spirit of the night. But some other behavior was rude.

Members of the environmental group Surfrider Foundation

occupied the back row of the theater, just to the right of where I was sitting. Throughout the evening, many of us were subjected to a truly juvenile display of mocking, derisive cat-calling, even booing.

OK, people do get out of line sometimes in these town hall-type sessions, but where it crossed the line for me was when I heard at least one person mocking Councilman Dave Sullivan's thick Boston accent. For those of us sitting nearby, it was embarrassing. Mocking a person's accent? Really?

Surfrider is good at cleaning up the beaches and helping the environment, which is great and deeply appreciated, but it seems as if it could learn a lesson or two when it comes to cleaning up its members' behavior in public sessions. I've reached out to several people at Surfrider for comment, including the head of the Huntington Beach chapter, who was in attendance, and have yet to hear anything back. I think they owe an apology to Sullivan.


Once the room cleared after the plastic bag decision, another vote was taken by the council that I think the public should also have a chance to vote on: a proposed ordinance that would hold a home's occupants responsible for fireworks set off on the property. The proposed law passed 4 to 3 on a first reading Monday, with Shaw, Boardman, Hardy and Katapodis voting for it, but it seems to pose many more questions than answers, and I will break them down in an upcoming column.

Sagely noted by the former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, "All politics is local." Huntington Beach, we have some issues, and they will be taking center stage come November. Now is the time to get involved, to start using your voice to ask tough questions and demand honest answers from those who run or want to run our city.

Whomever you support, don't be afraid to hold people accountable, or to challenge how they approach the concept of proper representation.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at

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