Members of the public who want to speak their minds at Berkeley City Council meetings will soon be able to give their comments earlier in the evening.
The change is the result of an at times pointed debate Tuesday that included references to a notorious nude protester, Newt Gingrich, rising authoritarianism around the world and, of course, the Free Speech Movement.
Some councilmembers had proposed shifting the public comment period on high-profile agenda items so it would be closer to the start of each meeting. Others argued the council should keep its practice of hearing comments later in the meeting, at the time members debate and vote on each item.
The council ultimately voted unanimously to do both: Starting next month, there will be a new comment period early in the meeting for most items on the agenda’s “action calendar,” and the council will continue to hear public comments on each action item when it’s discussed later on. Anyone who speaks at the first comment period won’t be allowed to address the council at the later session.
“If people want to speak earlier, let them do it … and if people want to speak at the time of the item, they can,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín, who had resisted the proposal to hear comments earlier rather than later. “I think that’s fair.”
Supporters of changing the public comment process say the current system requires speakers to wait through hours of other council business before getting their chance to address the body. That makes the council less accessible to the likes of students, parents caring for children and anyone who has to work late at night or early in the morning, they argued, while an earlier commenting period would make it easier for more people to participate.
“The sheer inaccessibility of engagement as it stands today is unacceptable,” Cecilia Lunaparra, president of the student advocacy group Cal Berkeley Democrats, said during a 90-minute public comment period about the proposal Tuesday night.
Opponents of the change argued no longer hearing from the public later in the meeting would have serious drawbacks: Comments would be less effective if they were delivered long before the council discussed an item, and speakers couldn’t respond to staff presentations or changes to legislation that are occasionally made later in the meeting.
Several opponents alleged the proposed change was an attempt to limit the public’s role in council meetings and the democratic process as a whole — a charge supporters vehemently denied. An earlier version of the proposed commenting changes had called for instituting a cap on the number of public speakers, but that idea was scrapped.
“Whatever the intent is … it is hard not to think that [it] will quash community input,” said former Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Sheila Jordan, who opposed shifting the comment period. “Allowing one comment at the beginning of the meeting doesn’t work.”
The new commenting system will go into effect at the April 11 City Council meeting.