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OP-ED: My Views on the City's New 'Guidelines' for Public Meetings

A Redwood City native shares his opinions on Monday night's City Council meeting, and the City's guidelines for public meetings.

A letter to the editor from James Lee.

Editor's Note: Patch has contacted the members of the Redwood City Council to offer them the opportunity to respond, and will publish any responses we receive.

 

I wanted to take a moment and discuss my thoughts about Monday night's Council meeting and respond to some of the aspersions cast and the misleading things said by the Council when they responded at length to my comments and to Dr. David and Brenda Hattery's comments.

Before I begin, I should point out that, as an activist, I have attended many local government meetings, and Redwood City's is the only City Council on the Peninsula I have come across that has put so much effort into policing the tone, body language, and reactions of the very public it claims to serve.

The Bay Citizen reported around a couple years ago that the Redwood City Council had a "Stepford-like quality" to the way it runs its business, and it is clear that the Council is intent on preserving this culture - where appearances are kept up, meetings are highly orchestrated, and even silent expressions of dissent are marginalized. Dissent is seen as a threat to power instead of being celebrated as a sign of a healthy, functioning, and democratically-minded community.

Tone, body language, cheering, and clapping has never been a concern of any board or council I have spoken out to, and it really frustrates me as a Redwood City native to see our city so uniquely fixated on the idea that any questioning of public servants and prominent members of the community is seen as a shocking, terrible thing.

If our city leaders actually cared about the good of the city, they would try to understand why so many people are upset with and mistrustful of the decisions they make, instead of insisting that the onus is on the public to have blind faith in the Council's decision-making, when we have already seen through their handling of multiple issues that the Council is not to be trusted.

Known friends of the Council have criticized them for curtailing free speech (as Steve Penna did in the August issue of the Redwood City Spectrum magazine), so it is not a shock that, in that context, those of us who have never been invited to the table and instead had to deal with the reality of seeing our issues and concerns ignored for a year might immediately think that instituting restrictive policies on public comment with hardly any public notice is dangerously undemocratic at its worst, and highly suspect at best.

The City has done a poor job at gaining the public trust, and for any of the councilmembers to demand such trust when it has certainly not been earned is not what a true public servant does.

The first thing, regarding the agenda item to approve a set of guidelines for public meetings, is the issue of the changing of the rules with regard to the way land use hearings are to be conducted. Our readings of the guidelines leave us only with the impression that there is a concerted effort to restrict public input as much as possible and to make sure the message remains firmly in control of the hands of the Council. It is clear that they do not want the public taking the discourse into their own hands.

What is of major concern is not just that these new rules will affect the upcoming appeal against the Planning Commission's approval of development at Pete's Harbor, but that it will affect future land use hearings down the line, including future hearings on the Saltworks development.

As someone who is also a member with Occupy Saltworks, I know that I and others who are opposed to that development are worried about these changes being made without much sunshine - changes that will have major bearings on how these far-reaching decisions on our city's future are heard and framed.

Vice Mayor Gee targeted me for recording the hearing on my smartphone, saying that it was a form of intimidation - that it was "intimidation" to have words recorded and possibly put out on blogs and social media. This came minutes after Councilmember Seybert proudly touted that the meeting was being streamed live on the internet and is also televised, so the claim that I was somehow doing something out there or untoward for recording the hearing for my own benefit was really unnecessary.

I am very, VERY offended that Vice Mayor Gee continued the false narrative that some in city government have been pursuing lately, that Occupiers and their allies are somehow making the City Council chambers an "unsafe" and "intimidating" place. All we are doing is trying to bring some accountability to city government, and these continued insinuations that our public comments and attempts to document hearing make people feel unsafe actually end up making a target out of Occupiers. 

We know, from having attended other city council and county board meetings, that no one else considers our behavior, words, and actions "unsafe." We know that Redwood City is alone in attempting to make the case that there is something extreme about our behavior. And when Occupiers are blamed for making hearings unsafe when we have done absolutely nothing of the sort, when we are told to watch our tone and character attacks when no similar admonishments were made to friends of the Council who said inaccurate and/or offensive things about Redwood City residents - as Housing/Human Concerns Commissioner Cherlene Wright and Port Commissioner Lorianna Kastrop did at recent Planning Commission meetings - we become targets for a backlash that is undeserved and misplaced.

Calling Occupiers "unsafe and intimidating" is a way to legitimize future attacks against us, and some of those attacks against us could very well be physical if the City Council continues to falsely claim that we are a threat that needs containment. The City Council is playing a dangerous game with the well-being of Occupiers when they continue along this narrative, and for those reasons we see the city's behavior as absolutely reprehensible. As they are the folks in power, we see their attempts to make targets out of Occupiers the real form of "unsafe intimidation" being practiced in the Council chambers.  What Vice Mayor Gee and the others on the Council are really "intimidated" by is their own realization that they are unable to sell their message to the watching public and to the press when activists like us are there, calling for greater sunshine or for public redress.

The City Council back-pedaled last night, arguing that these policies restricting public comment are "guidelines" and not "hard and fast rules." But when Occupiers and our allies with Save Pete's Harbor questioned City officials and staff in the past about their handling of the Pete's Harbor issue, we were told that there was nothing the City could do because they were following along their own "guidelines." So, clearly, the argument that these rules to limit public input are "guidelines" and not real policy decisions are just an Orwellian way of trying to make bad policy sound good after the fact.

Even if we were to believe that "guidelines" are not "hard and fast rules," the real issue at hand is that it states clearly in the full agenda packet that the Council has the full discretion to limit public comment to 15 minutes (for non-agenda items) and 30 minutes (for agenda or action items) whenever they feel like it. This means the Council, at any time, has the authority to follow their guidelines to the letter and indeed limit public discourse, and this set of guidelines gives them a formalized cover under which to do so.

While the Council spent a lot of time tonight congratulating themselves for "extending" the public comment period past 15 minutes, the point is that the Council does not deserve plaudits for doing the decent, correct thing and allowing the public time to speak.

Instead, it is the idea that the public should have as much time as it needs to speak that should be the "default" position of the council. Allowing the public time to speak past 15 minutes should not be an "opt-in" decision that the City Council praises itself for, over and over. The notion that the public should have as much time as it needs to speak should be the real guideline the City is working from.

It is also stunning to see that people will no longer be allowed, under these new rules, to submit public comment cards after the comment period has begun. This means that if someone shows up to a meeting late and comment has already started, they will not have an opportunity to speak.

It is also important to note that sometimes Occupiers have held back from submitting our comment cards, because, over the past year, we have noted that friends of the Council, developers, and others had a habit of waiting until the very end of the public comment period to submit their cards so that those whose opinions were in line with the Council always had the last word.

Well, as dedicated and observant Occupiers, we noticed this. We also noticed that the Council would not call up commenters to speak in the order that cards were submitted, but that they were shuffling them around so that pro-Council, pro-development, "friendly" speakers would go last.

So, Occupiers started waiting towards the end of the public comment period to submit our cards, just like the pro-Council folk. We did it to make sure our cards would not be shuffled so that our comments were stacked first and ignored. We were very successful with this strategy in the last few meetings we attended, and we know that the City Council and the Planning Commission were both extremely unhappy to know that we had caught on to their own game. And so, we find it highly suspect that after years of using this practice to orchestrate meetings in their favor, the Council now wants to create a rule banning this practice now that Occupiers have caught on and have learned to play by their own rules.

I would also add that it is highly uncalled for, for Councilmember Foust to try and imply that because we've never had a coffee with her or knocked on her door or given her a personal call, we have no right to doubt the intentions of her or the rest of the Council when they make these decisions. We could say the same thing about the claims they make regarding Occupiers' motives and intentions. 

Also, I did in fact submit my phone number to the Council during a public comment period last year, and specifically asked at that time that the Council get in touch so we can see how Occupy Redwood City (ORWC) and the Council can work together on issues we agree on.

I noticed that one speaker in Monday night's public comment, who was doing nonprofit work getting computers to children, got lengthy commentary from the Council and invitations to get in touch and exchange business cards. Well, none of that happened last year when I went to the Council without any preconceived notions and asked sincerely for the opportunity to work together. 

I have knocked on Foust's door to apologize for something offensive she alleged one of our Occupiers had said about her (she wasn't home). I have sent many of my media communications directly to elected officials that ORWC has called out, including the City Council, with my phone number prominently placed in those communications. Thanks to my efforts at outreach, I have met with county supervisors, state senators, state assemblymembers, and councilmembers from other cities. I have many of these people in my phone's contact list. It is only in Redwood City where I have run up against a thick wall of silence, and as a Redwood City native it hurts me to know that it's in my own community where it has been the hardest to be heard by those in government. Redwood City's government has been unique on the Peninsula in many ways, and few of them have been positive.

It is also disturbing that Foust seemed to be encouraging ex-parte communications. While I see her comments as an open invitation to set up a time for coffee, and will indeed consider contacting her for that reason, I think it generally goes against the idea of sunshine and transparent government to have important discussions with elected officials outside the Council chambers. 

At the last Planning Commission meeting, Chair Ernie Schmidt and other commissioners insisted that they couldn't engage in any dialogue with Paula Uccelli or the developer to help the Pete's Harbor folks because it would violate the Brown Act. Yet, as the meeting Monday night began, Planning Commissioner Shawn White was in discussion with Paula Uccelli. Clearly, Ms. Uccelli is a friend of City government, and to argue that the Planning Commissioners who know her personally never spoke with her about the Harbor development outside Council chambers assumes a great deal of naivete on the part of the public. 

FINALLY (and I do apologize for the lengthy letter), ORWC sees the Council's attempt to limit public input into government business a direct response to the activism we've been engaged in for the past year. We see the actions of the Council as a huge recognition of how effective a small, dedicated group of Occupiers in Redwood City have been in changing the local culture of free political discourse and public accountability, and we see it as a victory that they clearly see our efforts as a threat to their Stepford-like control over city affairs.

 

James Lee

Redwood City Native

Member - Occupy Redwood City and Peninsula Direct Action

 

Do you have an op-ed or letter to the editor that you would like to see published on RedwoodCity-Woodside Patch? Send it to Editor Jennifer van der Kleut at jennifer.vanderkleut@patch.com.

 

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Karen November 21, 2012 at 04:35 PM
In all due respect, I, too, am concerned about limiting the public comment period to 15 minutes. In the past, the Council has allowed each speaker 3 minutes to comment. When there have been 75 speakers, each got a chance to speak. This is democracy and should be encouraged. Some of the topics are controversial with speakers expressing passion in their comments, esp. those regarding development. I have never seen anyone get out of hand. I hope and trust that our elected officials will return to the democratic way they have allowed speakers to comment in the past. Guidelines are not necessary--just a simple allowance of 3 minutes per speaker has worked and can be communicated at all meetings.
Buck Shaw November 21, 2012 at 05:00 PM
I'm on your side Mr. Lee but I just couln't get all the way through your article. If you could have done it in 3 minutes ? You make great points but it was painful to read. Keep it shorter and more people might agree. I have the same problem when I talk to Libertarians, on and on in a foreign language..
Jim Clifford November 21, 2012 at 05:35 PM
Mr. Lee: I wasn't able to attend the meeting. Just what are the changes? Is it simply the 15 minute duration? Perhaps that can be extended.
Cliff Keith November 21, 2012 at 06:00 PM
Our Founding Fathers knew public discourse was the way to a democratic government. To deny a citizen the right to voice their opinion in a public governmental meeting is nothing more than Fascism. (Defined here: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fascism). I suggest Redwood City citizens’ exercise one of the 3 methods afforded them to bring about change…that being the right of the vote. Vote these Council members out of office. Until there is a governing body in Redwood City who work towards a City of the people, by the people and for the people we all are going to continue to get what they want, like this silly 15 minute time limit for public discussion of any agenda item.
James Lee Han November 21, 2012 at 06:24 PM
Jim, From what the Council said on Monday night, the "guideline" has always been 15 minutes. It's just that they extend it as they see fit. The Council spent quite a bit of time praising themselves for that. My suggestion for the Council is that a 15 minute limit should not be the guideline from which we "opt in" to extending time each week. The guideline should be for full time for public discourse, with of course considerations to be made for ending meetings at a semi-reasonable time. But as someone who has sat in Council meetings across the Peninsula and other regional governmental agency meetings 'til past midnight, I don't even think a policy for setting an "ending time" is necessary. Most governmental meetings are poorly attended and end well before the allotted time. I think the occasional long meeting is part of what a public servant needs to be aware that they will have to be a part of while they're in office.
James Lee Han November 21, 2012 at 06:27 PM
Buck, Sorry about that! I have that tendency to talk in broad, sprawling terms and run long. I agree that making points shorter and more concise is better.
James Lee Han November 21, 2012 at 06:31 PM
"Guidelines are not necessary--just a simple allowance of 3 minutes per speaker has worked and can be communicated at all meetings." I fully agree! If there is to be any "guideline" at all, that guideline should be something similar to what you have stated. If speakers last Monday night had not asked for this issue to be pulled from the consent calendar for discussion, the City Council meeting would have only been about 30 minutes long. I think the Council can afford the occasional super-long meeting or two, especially when people are coming to the council to speak to issues where their homes, lives, and communities are at stake.
Sharon Levin November 21, 2012 at 07:14 PM
I agree with all of the above. Buck, I'm with you, it was a well written LONG letter (sorry James) and I think I got distracted by too many shiny squirrels (it's an ADD joke). Our council, sadly, has long been afraid of discourse and dissent as I discovered when we BEGGED our then mayor (Jeff Ira) to engage with us in a discussion about the funding for Schaberg Library. I had held out great hope for Ms. Aguirre as mayor as 1) I've always liked her and 2) when we had a Save Schaberg Booth at the Earth Day Festival, she was the only council member who came (that I saw) and definitely the only council member to come up and talk to us. However, this need to control what is said at the council just saddens and concerns me. Now, we are not the only city to try to control facial expressions. I believe Palo Alto tried it and they were mocked greatly. Remember when we had the billboard, Redwood City, Palo Alto without the attitude? Yeah, right.
Merrily November 21, 2012 at 09:52 PM
I was appalled when I read the article the other day about the results of the RC Council meeting! WE THE PEOPLE!!! Since elected officials REPRESENT me the voter, then THE ELECTED COUNCIL should WANT to LISTEN to what WE the CITIZENS have to say! Thank you for writing an OP-ED article It is appreciated because we do need the public to hear (read) more about it, just in case they happened to be too busy to have been at the meeting that night. Several months ago, I went to the council meeting (of which Steve Penna's August article was written about), I was SHOCKED at the disrespectful behavior that the Council allowed against someone speaking. She was not out of line. She could have presented her words softer (not volume) and therefore more people could have heard her better her but actually she was speaking truth and sometimes that hurts. The council asked for the POLICE to come up to escort her out. Turned out it didn't actually happen! I would not allow this type of BULLYING just because I didn't like what someone had to say & I don't think the other members of the Council should either! FREEDOM of SPEECH whether you like it or NOT! Is the Council's point to have people not engaged in our town??
Merrily November 21, 2012 at 09:53 PM
I am born here, work here, and have many years of volunteering here. I have a REAL invested interest in Redwood City unlike the the City's attorney comment that stated that the developers have the right to talk as long as they want because THEY have an investment here -- REALLY?!?! Yes - their financial gain at OUR expense sometimes! We need to work together for a healthy town and that means hearing all ideas PLEASE! Thanks for listening to me. :)

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