Public comments are the most impractical form of political communication ever devised by good government advocates. A minute or two for NIMBYs and tin hats to spout off for any reason whatsoever.
Normally, the public comment period is mercifully short. It is generally reserved for people who wish to quibble over the minutiae of government—the kind that read fine print of a parking stub and argue with the attendant. Meanwhile, others wait in line for what seems like an eternity. The public comment portion of local government meetings is a rare spotlight for those desperate to be heard, and it rarely adds to a constructive dialogue.
Once in a while an organized group shows up to talk about an issue that may come up on a future agenda, usually regarding a proposed development that has not reached the governing body yet. The emotions expressed in these “not ready for primetime” events usually take an apocalyptic tone—the world is coming to an end, children will perish and there are too many damn cars on the road.
A suggestion to would-be speakers at such times: Have a point if you’re going to take the microphone. If one attends a San Jose City Council meeting, there are 11 members of the governing body. They are paid to listen to everyone’s thoughts, but their time counts, as does that of municipal staff.
Which brings us to the real pet peeve: mayors and councils and boards, I ask you to please pass the consent calendar before public comment. Many people come to public meetings to make sure their items are heard and passed. Those with no objection go on the consent calendar. With one vote, all of these items are passed. The rub is that any council or board member can pull an item off of consent. As a result, diligent advocates must show up, just in case somebody has a question regarding their item. But more often than not these actions are routine and advocates leave once the calendar is passed.
If a council, board or agency moves public comments up before the consent calendar, as a way of appeasing people who showed up for an issue that can’t even be discussed, others in the audience must endure the ceaseless, repetitive and caustic statements of the masses. Sixty people times two minutes is two hours. People who do business in the real world are forced to wait too long before their item is heard, especially when it will be passed in less than a minute. It is a mind-numbing experience.
There is a reason many of us would never endure public office. Sitting through public meetings is one of them. It takes a special kind of person, and I admire those who are willing to do it. It is time they will never get back.
So, please—mayors, council members and board reps—respect the time of all audience members and first pass the consent calendar. A grateful group of people will thank you.
p.s. And while we're at it, let's get rid of the pledge, the prayer, flag raisings, plaques and photo ops.