City Council Agrees to Reduce Public Participation

Mayor Julian Gold at the June 27, 2023 City Council meeting decided that public comment would to be limited to 90 seconds per speaker. That is half the three minutes usually allowed. The mayor also trimmed comment time on agenda items to two minutes from three. Finally he directed the city clerk to summarize written public comments rather than read them in their entirety. Would City Council go along with the mayor’s initiative to limit our ability to address our elected representatives?

In a word, YES. At the July 18, 2023 afternoon meeting Mayor Gold sought City Council assent for the new public participation policy he had unilaterally put in place at the preceding June 27th meeting. (Watch the video of the mayor introducing the policy at the preceding meeting.) At the July afternoon meeting no councilmember objected. Their silence was curious given that this represented such a step backward in the way the public interacts with elected representatives.

No councilmember asked whether it was prudent for our city to cut in half the time that is allotted to members of the public to speak. No councilmember asked whether the new practice of allowing the clerk to summarize all written communications could change the substance of what is being communicated.

Nobody on this dais even questioned whether Mayor Gold’s stated reason for limiting participation — “streamlining” meetings, he said — was sufficient justification to squelch the voice of the people in city business.

Subsequently, at the formal evening meeting that followed, Mayor Gold announced that City Council earlier that afternoon had “affirmed” his new policy.

To be sure it was a tacit affirmation as no councilmember spoke up. None asked a question. Who else wasn’t asking a question? Reporters from our three local newspapers — none of which even mentioned the change much less flagged its potential effect. Ours is a city with low levels of stakeholder engagement. Why create a policy to discourage it?

Only Renters Alliance recapped the origin of the policy in June and highlighted this as a big step backward for Beverly Hills.

The New Normal: 90-Second Public Comment

Council may have assented to the mayor’s new policy at the afternoon meeting but in fact the new policy was already in place the preceding Friday with a reformatted City Council meeting agenda that referenced the new limits. Here is a before and after comparison between the June and July agendas.

agenda instructions before new limits June 27 2023
Before the new limits City Council agendas essentially guaranteed speakers three minutes of time to be heard and three minutes to have a written comment read aloud.
agenda instructions after new limits July 18 2023
The revised agenda instructions allows the mayor discretion in the interest of time, but in practice during the meeting the most restrictive limit is always applied.

Interesting that the new agenda boilerplate doesn’t specifically identify the mayor’s new limits. The language is cagey. But in actual practice the new policy is far more restrictive. During oral communications at the July 18th meeting, for example, all speakers were limited to 90 seconds (none was afforded the “no longer than three minutes” time period as indicated on the agenda). Forget that conditional “may be summarized” language. ALL written comments submitted were only summarized and not one was read in entirety. One comment was even summarized by the clerk in only one word!

Not mentioned in the agenda boilerplate is another significant change that we saw only by reviewing the meeting video. Members of the public are no longer shown on the video. Speakers’ voices are disembodied as the camera remains fixed on the City Council dais. The public is erased from the official video recording of the proceedings!

Reference this video of oral communications at the July 18th evening meeting.

What we lose in the official record is the presentation and body language of the speaker. Take for example this effective comment. “Removing those fifty trees was a mistake, said one speaker. “OK, mistakes happen. But we can stop the mistake, and recognize the mistake, and save the 47 or 48 trees remaining.” Shouldn’t we have seen the speaker deliver that message? Again this is the official VIDEO record of the meeting and it shows no speaker.

We will take this opportunity to remind our neighbors that when city hall makes a mistake there is no admitting it or changing course; the city invariably doubles-down on the mistake. Even when the mistake is as egregious as losing this spectacular Robertson tree canopy.

Robertson trees before and after
At left Robertson Boulevard street trees ‘before.’ At right is the city’s illustration of the ‘after.’ Do you agree with the Robertson Boulevard Special Task Force that the tree-cutting changes the character of the street? Click through to read more at the city’s project website.

The New Normal: Written Comments Effectively Go Into the Circular File

Even more ridiculous was the portion of the oral communications section of the meeting where written comments would ordinarily be read aloud. On this occasion the clerk summarized 11 written comments submitted by Robertson Boulevard tree advocates in one-and-a-half minutes. That averages seven seconds per comment which is hardly enough time to communicate the substance of the comment much less any detail or context.

Read the written comments in their entirety.. Some are clearly marked “please read.” But that can’t happen under the city’s new public participation policy.

There should be a law against disregarding written communications from the public. But the city clerk says it is perfectly legal: the letter of the state’s open meetings law does not require those comments to be read aloud. So even if a public comment is distilled by the clerk to a 7-second soundbite, or if a 200-word comment is summarized to only one word, as happened that day, it is reportedly legal. But does that make it right?

We have filed a public records request to learn more about the new public participation policy and how it was promulgated. Stay tuned!

We Must Show Up to Be Heard!

The new public participation policy limits our ability to speak to our elected representatives but it can eliminate almost entirely our speech if we communicate by written comment. That means we must now show up if we want to be heard by City Council. Making the trip to city hall for less than two minutes at the microphone may seem like a waste of time. What we have learned is that the real waste of time is putting pen to paper and expecting that message will get to our elected representatives.


Mayor Slashes Time and Limits Opportunities for Public Comment (recap)

City Council June 27, 2023 formal meeting video

City Council July 18, 2023 formal meeting video