Council to vote on time limits
GRAND TERRACE: No need to constrain residents' comments during meetings, critics say.
10:00 PM PDT on Saturday, August 5, 2006
Tony Petta has been on both sides of the lectern.
When in office, the former Grand Terrace mayor listened to residents at city council meetings. Since leaving office, Petta has returned to speak as a private resident.
Because of that perspective, he has no problem with the three-minute limit Grand Terrace City Council imposes on each person who speaks at a public meeting.
Bob Minick sees it differently.
The 81-year-old Rialto resident regularly speaks before the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and feels constrained by its three-minute limit. So much so that he prepares his comments in advance and counts the words to keep from going over.
Time limits are becoming the norm at public meetings across the Inland region
Colton and Fontana give each resident five minutes. San Bernardino, Redlands, Yucaipa, Highland and Riverside stick to the three-minute rule.
"There has to be some sort of order," Petta said, "... so there's time also to conduct the business of the city council."
Maintaining that order will be discussed in Grand Terrace on Thursday as City Council reviews its three-minute rule to see if changes are needed, according to City Manager Tom Schwab.
The rule has been in place since 1978 but has been enforced aggressively since Maryetta Ferre became mayor in 2004. Because some current council members are uncomfortable with the limit, it will be revisited as council looks at other meeting procedures, Schwab said.
The issue is important because elected officials need to hear people's views on issues affecting their lives, according to Rich McKee, president of Californians Aware, a coalition that supports open government. But public comments become problems when residents repeatedly say the same thing about the same topic, he said.
"It's an idea forum, not a free speech forum," McKee said.
The issue is more basic to Roger Myers, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition in San Rafael.
Addressing governments in person gives people a voice they might not otherwise have, he said.
"This is one of the few ways they can do it where they know they are heard," he said.
That concept fueled a dispute last year when the Riverside City Council made changes to the rules covering public comments after a resident repeatedly spoke at council meetings about the war in Iraq.
Three council members - Ed Adkison, Frank Schiavone and Ameal Moore - recommended allowing residents to speak only about issues within the council's jurisdiction. They also wanted residents to speak to the council as a whole and to not single out or verbally attack individual members.
In July, council restored Riverside's three-minute rule.
Grand Terrace council members were divided at a July 13 meeting about how much time should be allotted.
Ferre, Bea Cortes and Lee Ann Garcia supported the three-minute limit but Jim Miller and Herman Hilkey opposed it because residents in the past were given more freedom to express their views.
Time limits evolved from the Ralph M. Brown Act, a 1955 state law that was named for its author, a Modesto assemblyman, and enacted to protect the public's right to participate in government meetings in California. McKee of Californians Aware said the Brown Act does not specify a time limit.
An informal 2003 survey sent to 478 cities by The League of California Cities concluded that several hundred cities adopted a three-minute limit, according to Megan Taylor, league spokeswoman.
Taylor said Burbank lets residents speak for a minute during an initial address to the council. After that, they get four minutes for agenda items and five minutes at public hearings.
The Los Angeles City Council recently voted to decrease its public comment time from two minutes to one.
That isn't enough time, Myers of the First Amendment Coalition said.
"Five minutes, the attorney general says, is reasonable but a minute is pushing it," he said.
In Grand Terrace, Cortes said she would support three minutes, plus a one-minute wrap up. The city's dynamics have changed over the past few years and more residents want to speak, she said.
"We have more people coming up and speaking forth on the issues," Cortes said. "If we extend it to six minutes, we would be there a longer time for everyone involved."