If you've ever subjected yourself to the verbal vomit stream that a public comment period at a city council meeting can be, you have to feel for Carson, California, Mayor Jim Dear. The mayor, in what's been seen as an abuse of power, has been using a mute button to cut off public speakers when they go past their allotted time, as well as to quiet members of his own city council.
More than two years after complaints about Dear's use of the mute button made their way up to the district attorney's office, the mayor's muting looks to be coming to an end. City council members voted 3 to 1 this week to remove the mute button, effectively disarming Dear from censoring the public during what are supposed to be open comment periods. Dear claims that many other cities in Los Angeles County also use a mute button, but the district attorney's office says it hasn't heard of any other mayors or council members with such volume control. The office advised Dear to stop using the mute button in 2010, but that advice was ignored.
Many in Carson, including members of the city council, have repeatedly expressed concerns that the mayor was violating the Ralph M. Brown Act, the open meeting law that requires a public comment period during hearings and city council meetings.
But according to this breakdown of the act [PDF], it seems that there may be some leeway in the interpretation of the limits of those public comment periods.
So long as the body acts fairly with respect to the interest of the public and competing factions, it has great discretion in regulating the time and manner, as distinguished from the content, of testimony by interested members of the public.
The public comment period is undoubtedly a crucial element of democracy at the local level. And while it's hard to condone Dear's use of the mute button, it also raises the question of when public comments can go too far off topic and become a hindrance to the process. The mute button is now being removed from council chambers in Carson, giving public commenters a little more freedom and the mayor a little less control.
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