Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Some might call it the 'Helm policy'

So the City Council has decided to clamp down on long presentations at the beginning of the council meeting.

It's an obvious response to public comment sessions over the past few months that have run on the long side. Much longer, in fact, than allowed for, according to the City Council's written policy.

Though there's been some criticism of the decision to be more strict with the time allotted for the council's public comment section at the beginning of every council meeting, the city appears to be on firm legal ground.

For the record, the California Newspaper Publishers Association's Jim Ewert, a Brown Act expert, has signed off on both the policy and the enhanced enforcement of the rules as meeting the letter of the law. He even went so far as to say the Tracy City Council is an "enlightened" bunch when it comes to allowing public comment, especially compared to some other cities.

By and large, Ewert is right. There are two public comment periods in each council meeting (the second of which is now virtually never utilized) and time for individuals to comment about each item on the council agenda in its turn. Also, the City Council has been far from heavy-handed, so far, when it comes to people sharing their views for extended periods of time before the council dais.

But it's hard to deny the practical effect of the city's new emphasis on a timely first "items from the audience" period. Namely, that it will push lengthy complaints about city leadership and policy — such as the comprehensive criticisms offered over the past few months by downtown business owner David Helm — to the end of the council meeting, when fewer people will be paying attention. That means such speeches could have less of an impact.

And that could create a perception problem for the city, even though the council is abiding by the Brown Act and (apparently) well within the law when it comes to accepting public comments. Because, whether it's accurate or no, when you read between the lines it looks like pushing long and critical speeches to a less prominent place in the meeting lineup is seemingly, at the least, a welcome side effect for the city.

And that kind of action, while legal, doesn't set a good perception nor create the type of tone conducive to public debate.

No comments: