Proposed LB City Council rules to shorten the length of city council meetings brings controversy:

Critics claim the new rules designed to curb the lengths of public comments are a violation of free speech.
At its Aug. 13 meeting, its second in the new civic center and council chambers, the Long Beach City Council implemented new procedures for councilmember discussion and public comment, in an effort to shorten meetings.

As Long Beach City Council meetings grow longer, a new set of rules designed to curb the excessive lengths of the sessions have raised the ire of critics who claim the new rules are a violation of free speech.

The new rules were announced on Aug. 9 in a memo from the City of Long Beach with a total of 11 suggested rule changes and an explanation of why the city settled on these changes.

Assistant City Manager Tom Modica spoke to the Signal Tribune on Sep. 10 and said that the changes came at the request of the council.

“This was an item that was brought forth by [4th District Councilmember] Daryl Supernaw and approved by the whole council to have the city manager, along with the city clerk, the city attorney and the mayor’s office take a look at best practices [and] ways that we can kind of improve our rules to make it go a little bit faster,” Modica said. “We had calculated a number of meetings that had gone well past 11pm or [midnight]. And [the] counsel asked us to study those and come back with some recommendations.”

The memo listed 11 recommended steps that the council can use to cut down on time, along with the suggestion that they are put into practice during the Aug. 13 meeting– the first city council meeting that took place in the new Bob Foster Civic Chambers.

Some of the proposed rules include cutting the time allotted for presentations to five minutes, with five minutes of discussion, or encouraging the council to adhere, as closely as possible, to the agenda issued before the meeting.

Two of the new rules drew criticism from the Long Beach Reform Coalition (LBRC), a local activist group, because of two proposed rule changes. Specifically, rules 10 and 11, which have a direct impact on the protocols for public comments from the audience.

The two rules in question state:

When there are 10 or more members queued to speak on a particular agenda item, the speaking time will be lowered to 90 seconds, with exceptions for Language Access or Americans with Disabilities accommodations.

Members of the community will be asked to identify the items for which provide public comment. They will submit their interest to speak on an item to the city clerk and can do so on any item up until the mayor has requested the item be heard for discussion. At that time, the speaker list will be closed, and all the speakers who have signed up will be called to speak at the appropriate time. Technology solutions are currently being pursued and will not be available in the short term. In the interim, speakers will submit a card to the city clerk for each item they intend to speak to, who will submit the cards to the mayor when each item is read.

The LBRC criticized the latter rule. The group claims it eliminates the ability for audience members to respond to agenda items by forcing them to submit their name for comments before the topic is discussed.

In a memo released on Aug. 12, the LBRC criticized the change in the public comments.

“The loss of this long-standing civic right will represent the further eroding of the democratic process in Long Beach,” the memo read.

Carlos Ovalle, a Long Beach resident and member of the local activist group People of Long Beach, stated that he was suspicious of the idea of streamlining the meetings and is unhappy with the changes.

One of the changes Ovalle is against is the shorter time-limit for public comments and scheduling the comments at the beginning of the meeting before new issues are heard.

“Ninety seconds is [unfair] for somebody that has a fear of speaking in public or somebody that might get a little tongue-tied because they are uncomfortable with either the subject being addressed or again with speaking in front of a crowd. It becomes problematic,” Ovalle said. “It’s easier for somebody too if they have a little bit more time to compose their thoughts and to read carefully and deliberately.”

Ovalle also pointed out that while audience members are limited in their time to speak, councilmembers have multiple chances to talk. Councilmembers will be limited to five-minute comments, but have no limits as to how many times they can re-queue to discuss an issue.

Modica says that the council has previously lowered the time-limit for public comments when there has been a large number of people in line. The new guidelines now assert the unofficial practice.

“There’s a misperception that everyone only gets 90 seconds,” Modica said. “That’s not accurate. The vast majority of speakers will continue to get the three minutes, but it will now be where [if] we have 10 or more [people], then the rules will have it go down to 90 seconds. [Which is] also subject to exemptions for language access or somebody [who] has a disability.”

Another point of contention has been the use of cards that the public is required to fill out to comment on any topic. Ovalle has criticized the use of speaker cards which ask for names of commenters.

“One of the biggest problems, which is a direct violation of the Brown Act, is that they are requiring people to identify themselves in the speaker’s card. By law, they’re not supposed to do that. We don’t have to identify ourselves before speaking,” Ovalle said.

Modica dismissed claims that the new rules infringe on free speech and added that names are not required.

“We’ve cleared everything with the city attorney, and this is about time management and meeting management,” Modica said. “Everyone has the ability to speak. You’ll hear that argument about ‘we are required to sign up to speak.’ Everybody can still put whatever name they feel. We don’t require you to put your actual name. It just needs to be an identifier.”

While the city assures the public that the new rules will improve the running-time of meetings, Ovalle says that the new guidelines have made it harder for citizens to speak during the meetings.

“It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘you guys go ahead and vent, and then we’ll carry on with our business,’ and that’s not the way it ought to be,” Ovalle said. “They are there for us. Not the other way around. We’re not an inconvenience, but it seems the way they’re doing it that we are just a nuisance for them.”

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