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

December 13, 2013|By Jeffrey Harlan

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."

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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.

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