The stupid thing about oral communications and public comment at city council meetings
Updated: Jan 30, 2020
I know I’m gonna get into a lot of trouble for this one...
Every Santa Cruz City Council meeting contains a segment called “oral communications.” This is a time for any person to have a couple of minutes to speak to the City Council about any topic EXCEPT FOR TOPICS that already have a specific place somewhere else on the agenda. Currently, this takes place in “prime time” at the council meetings: 7 pm. Taken in isolation, it seems like a sound idea to have an open forum for people to speak to the city government on just about anything. However, it’s essential to note here that-- because of very reasonable state law -- items that are raised at oral communications (in other words, items that were not formally publicized ahead of time to the community) may not be acted upon by the city council that day.
Of course, there’s a problem many people seem to miss.
Almost every council meeting has some very important community business to deal with and voted upon. It is common that the most significant items are placed on the agenda in the evening AFTER “oral communications.” In other words, the items that really need attention and action that evening – the ones that have the most community interest – are given a lower priority than the random other stuff that any single individual wants to talk about.
This seems out of whack.
When dozens of people come down to talk about a big project near their neighborhood or about a vital housing project or a major expenditure of public funds -- and the decision will be made at the council meeting that evening -- the public comments and council deliberation should absolutely be the top priority. And yet the “open mike” at oral communications is held as sacred and is given higher priority. The need for the most accessible “freedom of speech” opportunity should be on items where a decision is about to be made. Those items should start at 7 pm. Let the random, non-actionable items wait till later or be done at a different time that does not use the most accessible time slot -- unless there are no actionable items.