Before leaving office in late 2022, Councilmember Lori Droste submitted an item that would consolidate all public comments into a single period at the beginning of council meetings and limit the number of speakers.

Even though Droste is gone, her idea lingers on. It’s on the agenda for next Tuesday’s council meeting along with a slightly modified item, Supplemental Agenda Material, submitted by Councilmembers Rigel Robinson and Susan Wengraf.

Why is this bad? Council meetings have long agendas, and many people show up to voice their opinions. Moving the public comment to the start of the meeting, limiting speakers to 1 to 2 minutes and limiting the number of speakers means many will not have a chance to comment.

The California Brown Act governing public comments safeguards the public’s First Amendment rights and ensures transparency and accountability of your elected officials. Separating public comment from each policy item effectively strips one’s ability to have a meaningful impact on issues such as labor and tenants’ rights, police reform and environmental concerns.  

Contrary to the authors’ assertion (paragraph 3 of page 3 of Supplemental Agenda Material), the council could achieve the goal of making items on the agenda appear at a specific time. Councilmembers could limit their speaking time on an item, limit the number of times they speak on an item or move it to a future calendar when a time limit is reached.

What is the basis for making the change? The authors, Robinson and Wengraf, say it’s to get the public to speak at a convenient time and improve the flow of council meetings. The effect will be less input from the public and more decisions made without hearing arguments.

As a long-term Berkeley resident and former chair of the Housing Advisory Commission, I’ve appeared many times in front of the council, sometimes supporting an item on the agenda and others in opposition. I know firsthand how important it is to marshal voices on an issue and bring concerns to the council about a specific item.

I urge you to speak out at the March 14 council meeting when this item comes up and demand a “no” vote on this Supplemental Agenda Material. To join the council meeting, use this link. You can also join by dialing 1-669-254-5252 or 1-833-568-8864; enter the meeting ID 160 095 5724. Press “9” to speak during the comment period.

Vincent Casalaina, who has lived in Berkeley since 1963, is treasurer of the Willard Neighborhood Association.