City of Beverly Hills mayor Julian Gold has taken a big step backward on public participation. He has cut in half the time afforded to members of the public who attend in order to address City Council face-to-face. Tonight we had only 90 seconds to face our elected representatives instead of the customary three minutes. The mayor also cut by one-third the time a member of the public is afforded to comment on any matter that is on the agenda. Instead of three minutes to talk about rent increases, for example, tenants and landlords were permitted to speak for only two minutes. Written comments took the worst hit: instead of reading them aloud, as usual, the city clerk merely summarized them. The city clerk says all of it was perfectly legal. But that does not make it right.
The derogation of public participation protocol at this meeting was only the latest bid by the Mayor to subordinate the public interest to the interests of City Council. Shortly after taking office for his ceremonial one year term, for example, Mayor Gold rearranged the City Council meeting format. Instead of hearing from top city officials near the beginning of the meeting, the public must now wait hours until the end of the meeting to hear from the city manager and city attorney. Of course the public is tuned-out by that late hour.
As if to complement city hall’s disinclination to share information with the public, the mayor now throttles communication from the public to city hall. The changes came at the June 27, 2023 City Council meeting and they suggest a new normal under this mayor and City Council.
Mayor to the Public: 90 Seconds is Enough for You
At the last Council meeting of the fiscal year Mayor Gold introduced some changes to the way the public interacts with our elected representatives. Most concerning was that the mayor unilaterally cut in half the time afforded to members of the public to address councilmembers during oral communications. This is the period allotted for the public to face our elected representatives. Customarily three minutes are allowed. The mayor reduced it to only 90 seconds.
“This evening we have a very large agenda and in the interests of time we are going to limit public comment to 90 seconds,” said the mayor, but the circumstances suggested otherwise. Watch the video.
A very large agenda? Councilmembers had just wrapped-up thirty minutes of ceremonial presentations and that delayed important city business. Yet at no time did the mayor, or any other councilmember, ask to abbreviate the pomp. None called for a quick wrap-up of the photo-ops. On the contrary!
And second, as that video shows, the mayor clearly decided to limit oral communications to 90 seconds once he saw the yellow public-comment slips submitted for the oral communications part of the meeting. The slip asks the speaker to indicate the topic that is to be discussed. We presume that the mayor saw slips for people who would speak against the city for cutting-down trees on Robertson Boulevard. At that point the mayor chose to limit comment to only 90 seconds.
There is a backstory to the mayor’s action. The tree advocates are led by local business owner, Wendy Klenk, who brought objections from a group of residents and business owners to City Council. They were concerned the city’s plan to cut-down all of the mature street trees on Robertson Boulevard and replace them with palms and crepe maple varieties.
City hall wouldn’t discuss a compromise (much less halt the cutting). Behind the plan was a better-connected commercial property owner, Chamber of Commerce president David Mirharooni, who petitioned the city to replace the Ficus trees. Getting the cold shoulder from councilmembers, the tree advocates took the city to court. At that point things turned downright frosty.
When tree advocates appeared at the microphone to speak the mayor reduced public comment to 90 seconds in an apparent effort to freeze them out. Watch tree-advocate-in-chief Wendy Klenk take the mayor to task for summarily — and without advance notice — cutting the public comment period in half.
State open meetings law affords the public an opportunity to address in person our elected officials. However the law does not prevent the mayor from imposing his own time limit.
Speaking on an Agenda Item? Two Minutes is Plenty
Mayor Gold at this meeting also unilaterally decided to reduce the time afforded to members of the public for verbal comment by one-third to two minutes from the customary three minutes. Only a practiced orator, attorney or lobbyist can squeeze-in a comment on a complex topic like the rent increase to a two-minute time. And how much can be said in two minutes anyway?
That is precisely the point! Public input into City Council decisions is simply not necessary. Councilmembers tend to come to the discussion with an opinion firmly set and councilmember questions always betray it. A comment from a member of the public only rarely has any traction unless it can be invoked to bolster a councilmember’s own argument. That is politics 101 and our mayor earns his A grade.
But that does not comport with the spirit of the state’s open meetings law. The public is supposed to be afforded a voice before our elected representatives make up their mind. That is participatory democracy 101 but here our mayor passes only with a ‘Gentleman’s C.’ In Mayor Gold’s ten years as a councilmember has any public comment influenced, much less changed, his thinking?
The mayor’s unilateral decision to limit agenda item comment to two minutes surprised tenants and landlords who attended to comment on the maximum rent increase. Not that any of that comment mattered. Even the most persuasive of commenters apparently failed to move any councilmember. All voted for rent increases exactly as expected.
Your Written Comment is Now Summarized in Twenty Seconds
The mayor limited our opportunity to verbally address City Council but he reminded us that written comments still give us a voice in the process. “Anything that we receive by email we read, and it will be entered into the public record,” he said. But that is disingenuous. City Council rarely references any written comment in deliberations so we surmise most councilmembers don’t read them (or perhaps selectively read them).
Instead we relied on submitting our written comment to be read aloud at the meeting before councilmembers discuss the issue. That’s what the agenda said: a comment of 350 words (or the equivalent of three minutes of speaking time) would be read aloud. But not at the June 27, 2023 meeting.
Mayor Gold unilaterally decided that all written comments submitted to be read wouldn’t actually be read. Those comments would be excerpted and/or summarized by the city clerk. Which is what the clerk did: read excerpts that she selected and read them as one continuous comment without attribution to whomever submitted it. Watch the clerk read those excerpts to a confused City Council.
Even the mayor was confused. After that false start the clerk motored through at least 16 written comments at the rate of about twenty seconds per comment. That is far less than the three minutes customarily afforded — in fact it is barely one-tenth the time customarily allowed.
The mayor’s unprecedented abridgement of the public’s right to comment on an agenda item did, in effect, squelch the voices of the tenants and landlords who took the time to offer City Council our view.
All of us are knowledgeable about the topic and all have been involved in rent stabilization policy discussions as far back as 2017. Nobody will dispute that each of us is far more knowledgeable about rent stabilization than any councilmember. Yet we each got only twenty seconds of councilmember attention. And even then the comments were not attributed to the individuals who submitted them.
The city clerk may have botched the mayor’s new limits on public participation but have no doubt that the initiative came at the direction and discretion of Mayor Gold.
City Clerk: It’s Not Unlawful
Mayor Gold took unprecedented measures to limit public comment and no other councilmember spoke up to question it. So we reached out to city clerk Huma Ahmed to share our concerns. The clerk had a ready response. Here is our abridged conversation the day after the June 27, 2023 meeting.
Alliance: Reading comments as one continuous comment without attribution to the individual speaker effectively deprived members of the public from having our voice heard.
Clerk: “Summarization of comments has been a past practice, and I can attest to the fact that it’s been done several times during my term as City Clerk… The summarization approach can always be improved.”
Alliance: Speakers’ comments were arbitrarily and excessively truncated to two sentences from as many as 330 words in effect substantially changed the meaning of each comment. “That was certainly a violation of the spirit of the [open meetings law] if not the letter of the law.”
Clerk: “Written comments are not required to be read into the record, therefore there was not a Brown Act violation.”
Alliance: Who directed comments to be read in that fashion? We asked, “Did that decision arise from your discretion and judgement as clerk, or did it come at the direction of a city official?”
Clerk: “The Mayor always presides over the City Council meetings and has discretion regarding the format.”
Alliance: Councilmembers were deprived of an opportunity to hear what tenants and landlords had to say — and the public at large was similarly deprived.
Clerk: “The City Council was provided with written public comments in their entirety…hard copies are always available for the public to review in our office.”
The clerk has all the answers as befits a city employee that earns $220,000 annually plus as much as $350 in monthly ‘incentive pay’ despite having no experience as a city clerk when hired. So we think it is fair for a taxpayer to ask, How much more incentive pay does the clerk need in order to put the interests of the public before the predilections of the mayor?
- City Council meeting agenda June 27, 2023
- City Council meeting video June 27, 2023 (full meeting)
- City Council Agrees to 3.2% Chapter 6 Rent Increase
- City Council OKs Biggest Chapter 5 Rent Increase in Decades
And a bonus: the follow-up exchange between tree-advocate Wendy Klenk and Mayor Gold as it occurred later on a city budget agenda item.