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Alhambra City Council Rejects Rule Changes Limiting Public Speaker Access

Photo by David Muñoz.

Location

Alhambra , CA

The Alhambra City Council voted unanimously Monday night not to pass meeting rule changes that would have reduced public speaker time from five minutes to three minutes and would have required those who wanted to address the Council to turn in their speaker cards before the start of an agenda item.

The Council voted four to zero to deny the rule changes, first proposed by Councilmember David Mejia during the City Council’s previous meeting on Aug. 12, as additions to an ordinance that would change City Council meeting start times from 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., and adopt a simplified set of parliamentary rules, Rosenberg’s Rules of Order, in place of the more complex Robert’s Rules of Order.

During the Aug. 12 meeting, Mejia and Councilmembers Katherine Lee, Ross Maza and Jeff Maloney voted for the changes, while Mayor Adele Andrade-Stadler dissented. Mejia, Maza and Maloney ended up reversing their votes during Monday’s Council meeting, when the rule changes came back for a second reading. Lee was not present.

The vote happened around midnight, after 25 people passionately spoke out against these proposed rule changes, saying that they would infringe on residents’ First Amendment rights, and would discourage civic engagement.

“Cutting public comment time nearly in half is quite literally cutting the power that residents have to influence government,” said Alhambra resident Sasha Renee Perez, sharing her previous experience in training Los Angeles County residents on civic engagement with Cal State LA’s Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs.

Other speakers said that requiring people to hand in speaker cards before the start of an agenda item would not allow people who arrived late due to family or work obligations to speak. It would also prevent valid reaction to comments from other public speakers.

“Sometimes something is said during public comment that triggers a thought or idea that another person feels should be addressed,” said Alhambra resident Cliff Bender. “This building on the thoughts and perspectives of others is the closest we can come to having a real discussion.”

Several speakers pointed out that reducing speaker time isn’t necessary, since the mayor already has the discretion to set time limits on agenda items. They also suggested that the City Council could accommodate those who couldn’t stay for an entire meeting by reordering agenda items, moving oral communications to the beginning, and employing other tools already available to them.

Two people spoke in support of the rule changes, including Planning Commissioner Suzi Dunkel-Soto, who said that limiting most comments to three minutes would incentivize people to be more concise, and allow those who can’t stay for an entire meeting a chance to speak. She also said that a meeting chair could lengthen public speaking time at his or her discretion.

Mejia said limiting free speech is antithetical to everything he stands for. “I got relatives — my in-laws — that are Cuban that were thrown in prison for speaking their minds, so that’s the last thing I want to do to anybody,” he said.

His intent in proposing the amendment is to allow people who can’t stay for an entire meeting the chance to speak on their specific issue. “Instead of having your 12 speakers that will last about an hour, because you get your five minutes or sometimes even more, I was thinking you probably get 20 speakers, because now you can get a flow of more engagement among the community,” he said.

Maza said that he also supports free speech and welcomes everybody’s opinions, and reiterated his intention of encouraging more people to attend City Council meetings and speak, especially if they can’t stay all night because of family and work. “I’ve been approached out there, people telling me that they’ve been at meetings where they wanted to speak at public comment, and they weren’t able to because they were here until 10:30 or 11:00 at night,” he said.

In terms of turning in speaker cards before an agenda item has been called, Maza said that he intended for that to cut down on interruptions for those already speaking and for the city clerk, who is keeping track of speaker cards while also taking meeting minutes. After making these clarifications, Maza said that after hearing the opinions of the people who spoke on this item, he would change his vote to not support the amendment.

Councilmember Maloney made a motion to adopt the rule changes without Mejia’s amendment, which Mejia himself seconded. The ordinance changing the City Council meeting time and adopting Rosenberg’s Rules of Order will come back for a second reading on Sept. 23.

The controversy over these rule changes come on the heels of the sometimes heated discussion over the 801 E. Main St. development, with some Planning Commissioners saying that public speakers made personal attacks against them during those hearings. Multiple speakers and City Council members underscored the importance of kindness and civility when making public comments, while also protecting people’s rights to free speech, including Alhambra resident Jennifer Ng, who wore a Mr. Rogers t-shirt to the meeting. She recounted how the Planning Commission demonstrated a willingness to let the public voice their opinions by reopening public comment, even after the initial public hearing had closed on the 801 E. Main project.

“As Mr. Rogers says, be kind to each other, be respectful to each other,” she said. “We can be very nice and get a lot of wonderful things done for the city.”

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