Redwood City Councilmembers took roughly an hour-and-a-half to convey their true intentions behind an 11-page document recently drafted that sets forth guidelines for how public meetings are carried out on Monday night.
A few people spoke during the night's public comment session, expressing that they were concerned that the document's contents sought to limit public comment on issues that greatly affect local residents, such as the development of Pete's Harbor, the Cargill Saltworks issue, recycled water and others.
Mayor Alicia Aguirre said, the original intention behind forming the ad-hoc committee she requested and drafting the document was, rather, to organize all of the City's policies regarding public meetings into one comprehensive document - but, she pointed out, none of the policies were new, and all have existed all along.
"We have a lot of things we do in our City that are not well documented, so this is a great idea to take a look at them and organize them," she said.
City Attorney Pamela Thompson specifically addressed the items regarding limiting public comment on non-agenda items to 15 minutes and on action items to 30 minutes, stating that the time limits had always been that way, they just weren't well documented as such.
"As for public comment - it’s said 15 minutes for as long as I’ve been here, and I’m pretty darn sure it said that even long before I was here,” she said.
Whereas some commenters said they felt it was unfair that potential developers get to speak and present as long as they like, Thompson said it is "their right."
"They have a vested interest in a piece of property," she explained.
However, Thompson said that the guidelines are "not hard and fast rules – if the council wants to give a certain matter longer time, it certainly can, and in the past it has.”
Councilmembers Rosanne Foust and John Seybert - who sit on the ad-hoc committee that had a hand in discussing and drafting the document - spoke out during the meeting, saying the strict limiting of public comment was not their aim in this effort.
Seybert said, in reality, all of the policies in the document are "the way things have always been done," and all this guide seeked to do was to document it, all in one place.
"I knocked on 4,000 doors during my campaign – I’m not afraid of public comment," Seybert said.
Seybert also pointed out that the timing of the document appearing on the night's City Council agenda was not "a rush in advance" of the upcoming hearing of the appeal filed against the development of Pete's Harbor, as some may have speculated.
"Even if the document did get approved tonight, it probably wouldn't take effect before [the appeal hearing] anyway," he said.
Councilmember Foust said she felt that, if this was going to be a public document that is published and distributed to members of the community, that it was important to convey the true meaning behind the guidelines contained therein.
At that point, City Attorney Thompson said she had drafted a potential introductory statement that she thought could work well on the front page of the document, addressing that issue.
Thompson's suggested statement discussed why the document was created, and that it was meant to help create an environment of mutual respect during public City meetings that helped make everyone feel comfortable speaking out, while also giving them a clear picture of how official meetings work, and what they could expect if they wish to speak.
A few councilmembers said that, while they welcome public input on important matters that affect the community, they feel that, in past meetings when a controversial issue has been on the agenda, some commenters have become so empassioned that they may end up "intimidating" other speakers.
Vice-Mayor Jeffrey Gee said, "I see this guideline as a way to even-out the context of making people comfortable approaching us and speaking in front of this council.
"It’s scary to go to that podium and speak," he continued. "We need to remove the intimidation that some seek to exercise when they speak at the podium."
Mayor Aguirre echoed that sentiment, saying that she worries that "some people in town who are more vocal than others" may sometimes "get in the way" of others speaking their minds.
In the end, the City Council unanimously approved the 11-page document and all its guidelines, with the modification that an introductory statement such as the one City Attorney Thompson suggested be added to it, to help convey the spirit of the guidelines.
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