Time passed me by since I coined an opinion in this column, and I’m surprised I’ve evaded some readers’ pointed observations of that.
Several “other” newspaper business deadlines involving press association, management and other print products overfilled my plate like a Paul Bunyan burger at the Lumber Mill.
But those deadlines are memories for another year so I’m able to peak my head out of the groundhog hole and see what’s happening in our local governments.
Last week’s Idyllwild Water District meeting — as has often been the case over the decades — drew attention and displayed drama.
The president made the decision to put all public comments at the beginning of the meeting. That made it nice for the roughly 50 Pine Covers who showed up to stand in solidarity against any discussion of consolidation with the other two water districts. They spoke their peace and went home to make dinner or left to eat in one of the many Idyllwild restaurants.
But those who remained, we feel, are treated unwisely by the president’s decision. He left the meeting abruptly at the beginning, allowing the remaining directors to override that decision.
Here’s why we feel his decision was unwise:
California Government Code section 54950, et seq., officially known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, requires that the public be allowed to comment on a public board’s open-session agenda items before or during the board’s consideration of them.
When would be the best time to allow comment? At the beginning of each open-session meeting? Immediately when each agenda item is called? Or during the board members’ discussion?
To allow the public to comment on agenda items before any board discussion would likely result in a serious consumption of time, with perhaps repeated members of the public addressing matters about which there is really no controversy. For example, if an agenda item were whether to increase reserve accounts by a given amount recommended by the board’s accountant, and if each member of the board already were privately inclined to do so, it would be a waste of time to hear comment after comment from members of the public urging them to do what they already were inclined to do.
Consequently, it seems to us that the best time to take public comment on an agenda item would be after the agenda item is called and after the board has engaged in open discussion of the matter, but before any vote on it.
So, for example, if the board’s discussion of an agenda item should result in a motion that is seconded, before the board actually votes on the matter, the board would open the meeting to general public comment regarding that particular agenda item, especially as it relates to the pending motion.
This way, members of the public will know the board members’ current views and can address those matters, as needs be. This seems to us to be the most efficient and productive use of public comment during an open session of a public board.
Even if a certain agenda item will be considered by the board in a closed session, such as a discussion with the board’s attorney regarding pending litigation, the board is required to announce certain, very specific information regarding the subject matter of the closed session before it goes into closed session. (Gov. Code § 54954.2, subd. (a)(1) and § 54954.5, subds. (a) through (k).) The public then is allowed to comment on the closed-session matter before the board goes into closed session. (Galbiso v. Orosi Public Utility District (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 1063, 1080.)
So, even though the Brown Act permits the board to set public comments before an agenda item’s consideration, it seems prudent and logical to allow these comments after the board’s discussion of that item, but before any voting.
Becky Clark, Editor