New Restrictions on Public Comments Stir Debate at OC Supervisors’ Meetings

On Election Day earlier this month, while the citizens of Orange County were exercising one of their most cherished freedoms by casting ballots, the county’s elected Board of Supervisors was busy changing their rules to limit how often and how long people can speak at public meetings.

Under the previous rules, members of the public could address the board when individual action items come up for up to three minutes per item, and up to nine minutes total per meeting. There was also a general public comments period near the end of the meeting for topics not on the agenda.

That all changed on Election Day, when the board voted to stop allowing public comments when individual items come up. They instead moved all public comments to the beginning of their meetings, where each person now has a single three-minute speaking period, regardless of the number of agenda items they want to address.

The new restrictions – which were buried on page 110 of the meeting’s supplemental agenda document without a staff report – were put forward by Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett, who argued they would make it easier for the public to comment quickly without having to wait for hours to speak.

“It’s a matter of making more efficient use of everyone’s time, particularly to the public, and being deferential to their important time, and not having to spend an ungodly amount of time here sitting in our chambers before an item comes up on the agenda,” Bartlett said at the time.

The new restrictions were approved 4-1, with Bartlett and supervisors Michelle Steel, Shawn Nelson, and Andrew Do voting for it, and Supervisor Todd Spitzer voting no.

But county watchdogs and open government advocates think otherwise. Terry Francke, who heads Californians Aware, one of the state’s leading open government advocacy groups, said the new restrictions might run afoul of the state’s open meetings law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act.

The law states that limits on public comments “are to be ‘reasonable … to ensure that the intent’ of accommodating public comment ‘is carried out,’” Francke wrote in an email. “A flat limit of one three-minute comment per meeting appears arbitrary rather than ‘reasonable.’ ”

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who was the only supervisor to vote against the measure, said that while he supported moving a comment opportunity to the beginning of meetings, he was worried about the restrictions from speaking during individual items.

“I am concerned that we are limiting a person’s ability to speak to us on all items to the very, very beginning, when we may not get to the item for hours and we’re removing that right to at least speak on an agenda item close to the time we’re actually gonna debate it or deliberate it,” Spitzer said.

He added that people who come to speak on two or three different items would have to condense all of their comments into three minutes.

Bartlett politely pushed back, saying she plans “on taking copious notes with the public comments” so she knows what was said when the items come up later in the meeting.

The restrictions were largely targeted at three local residents who for years have come to the meetings to speak during multiple agenda items about their grievances.

One is Michael Klubnikin, who regularly lambasts supervisors as being part of what he claims is a conspiracy to illegally seize his mother’s properties. In 2012, supervisors responded to his comments by capping commenters to nine minutes of comments per meeting.

“You guys take a blankin’ jackhammer to anything when it deals with public comment, because you do not want to know the truth!” Klubnikin told supervisors on Election Day just before they approved the policy changes.

“You can’t handle the truth,” he added, using a deep voice to repeat Jack Nicholson’s famous line from the film “A Few Good Men.”

The other two commenters who have drawn the ire of supervisors are Ilya Tseglin and his son Robert Tseglin, who frequently claim the county’s Adult Protective Services and Public Defender’s office have been involved in illegally removing Ilya’s autistic son Nate Tseglin from their Irvine home and placing him in a facility where they say he’s been mistreated and put on harmful medication.

Joining Spitzer and others in criticizing the new rules was Darrell Nolta, a longtime Westminster resident who has earned praise from some supervisors in the past for his comments.

He said the board’s public meeting time – Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. – is already impossible for many people to attend given their work schedules, which underscores the importance of not further restricting the public’s right to speak.

“In terms of the right of the people to come and confront the government through speech, to petition the government, there is no doubt there is this movement by the Board of Supervisors to suppress our right to speak in front of you,” Nolta said.

But Supervisor Shawn Nelson said the three commenters continue to shoehorn their issues into unrelated agenda items.

“Right now, for the most part, we have the same three people who come to talk about actually the same issue every time. It doesn’t matter what the agenda item is or isn’t…it’s just they’re making a mockery.”

At this Tuesday’s supervisors’ meeting, the first full meeting under the new rules, Klubnikin vented his frustration.

“You guys put a sword through public comments!” he said, clearly upset. “Shame on all of you…How dare you take away public freedom to speak!”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

  • Well said, no one has rights to take freedom of public speak. If you wants to have meeting in public then you should connect your tongue to your brain before mentioning something or else it would be problem for all. First create meeting agenda which is well for public and then start meeting.

  • Shirley L. Grindle

    Would like to ask the Supervisors if any one of them has bothered to look into the Seglin problem. Perhaps the Seglins would have no reason to bother the Board with their continual message that their son and brother is being abused at one of the Regional Center care facilities if the Board would pay attention to their complaints and do something about them. These are not idle complaints from a disgruntled father and brother — they are complaints about an abusive care system which is out of control.

  • Lori

    Their attitudes would be very different if they were paid hourly at these meetings.

  • Jacki Livingston

    I have written to the board of supervisors sixteen times, never receiving a response. I have asked to address them ten times, never to receive a response. I have told them that this is an urgent public safety matter, as well as a personnel issue, and they refuse to allow me to be heard. These are dictators and liars, not any less than Castro or any other self serving demigods. They don’t want to know real problems, they want photo ops to solve fake ones.

  • Shirley L. Grindle

    Speaking of the “same three people that speak at every meeting” — one of them is the father of a young man with disabilities who has been taken away from his parents home and kept in one of the regional centers. The father repeatedly has told the Board of the terrible treatment his son is getting. If I were sitting on the Board, I would have finally taken his pleas seriously and would have personally looked into the situation. But I bet not one single Supervisor has bothered to do this. Behind this story is the fact that the regional care centers have no requirements for their caregivers and owners and they make up to $50,000 a month for each patient. This is a story that needs to be exposed but there is so much money to be made by these centers and by the County that it is a deep dark dirty secret.

    • Jacki Livingston

      They didn’t look into hundreds being raped, robbed and killed in a chain of nursing homes, as they took campaign donations from the owners. Do you think they care about one? Did you? Hundreds of letters, I tried everything, and no one cared.

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  • Robert Jordan

    Who can guess what city has these rules?

    PUBLIC COMMENTS: Prior to the business portion of the agenda, the City Council and all other related agencies meeting on such date will convene in joint session to receive public comments regarding any agenda items or matters within the jurisdiction of any such governing bodies. This is the only opportunity for public input except for scheduled public hearing items. The Mayor or chairperson will separately call for testimony at the time of each public hearing. The City uses speaker cards that should be submitted to the City Clerk (Please note, speaker cards are not required; everyone will have an opportunity to address the Council). The time limit established for public comments is three minutes per speaker unless a different time limit is announced. Testimony during public hearings is subject to the following time limits: Project applicant or issue initiator: twenty minutes for initial presentation and ten minutes for rebuttal; Residents within the noticed area of the subject property: ten minutes; All other members of the public: three minutes. Public hearings regarding legislative matters: five minutes. The Mayor or chairperson may limit the length of comments during public hearings due to the number of persons wishing to speak or if comments become repetitious or irrelevant. Pursuant to Government Code Section 54954.2(a)(2), no action or discussion by the City Council shall be undertaken on any item not appearing on the posted agenda, except to briefly provide information, ask for clarification, provide direction to staff, or schedule a matter for a future meeting.

    • David Zenger

      I’ll guess: Anaheim?

      • Robert Jordan

        That’s the one.

        Funny no one is upset about Orange County’s biggest city having the same public comment policy for years.

        Que the kleptocracy conspiracy theories…

        • David Zenger

          I’m not getting the connection between Anaheim and the new County rules. Please elaborate.

          • Robert Jordan

            Did you fail to read beyond the first sentence?

            “This is the only opportunity for public input except for scheduled public hearing items. “

          • David Zenger

            Of course I read beyond the first sentence. Did you? Please note the phrase “except for scheduled public hearing items.” Jeez, you just wrote it.

            Meaning that in Anaheim citizens can speak in the public comments portion of the meeting AND during public hearing items. So your comparison makes no sense.

            And I note that under Mayor Tom Tait’s presidency speakers are permitted to address non-public hearing matters as well.

          • Robert Jordan

            From the County rule: “This is the only opportunity for public input except for scheduled public hearing items.” Sounds awfully familiar.

            And I know its been a long time since you’ve been to a meeting Dave, but that means no more pulling items from Consent or Discussion (County) or the items listed in Anaheim under “End of Consent Calendar” (whatever that is, some city’s actually give those items titles like “New Business” or “Unfinished Business”).

            Oh yeah, and let’s talk about the disturbing amount of items Anaheim puts on Consent. Looks like everything but land use.

            But don’t let me disturb your conspiracy theory narratives.

            And now back to the kleptocracy…

          • David Zenger

            “From the County rule: “This is the only opportunity for public input except for scheduled public hearing items.” Sounds awfully familiar.”

            That’s NOT what the article says, Bob. Here’s what the reporter DOES say:

            “That all changed on Election Day, when the board voted to stop allowing public comments when individual items come up. They instead moved all public comments to the beginning of their meetings, where each person now has a single three-minute speaking period, regardless of the number of agenda items they want to address.”

            See, by golly, I can read after all. But this is all pointless. What on Earth do you think my responsibility is for Anaheim’s agenda, whatever its format may be?

            But let’s forget this pointless back-and-forth. If you really have something to say can you please explain your complaint in plain English? I’ll give you a final swing at it.

          • Robert Jordan

            The County makes the SAME EXACT rule for public comments as that which Anaheim has had for years and, all of the sudden, the Free World is about to end.

            Maybe this illustrates why you can’t keep a job. Reality and the facts too often clash with whatever chaos is happening in your brain.

            Back to the kleptocracy now.

          • David Zenger

            The County did NOT make the exact same rule. You wrote that yourself, pustule.

            You can’t read. You can’t write. You don’t have the guts to use your own name. I’d say your job prospects are pretty good. But only on the 5th Floor of Building 10 making 23 bucks an hour. Then back to whatever politician is dumb enough to hire you

          • Robert Jordan

            From the 12/13 Agenda for the BoS:
            “This is the only opportunity for public input except for scheduled public hearing items.”

            From the 11/22 Agenda for the Anaheim CC:
            “This is the only opportunity for public input except for scheduled public hearing items.”

            Those seem similar, if not EXACTLY THE SAME.

            But I realize what they say about arguing with fools and I’ll stop now while I’m ahead.

            Now back to tending those cats David.

        • LFOldTimer

          Anaheim resident public speakers aren’t allowed their 3 minutes at the podium item by item during their council meetings and only get one 3 minute shot at the start of the meetings?

          That’s news to me. Did the Anaheim council just change their policy?

          • David Zenger

            Exactly. Anaheim has permitted people to speak on individual items just like the code passage cited by this guy says. I have no idea what his point is.

    • LFOldTimer

      My guess would be Yorba Linda as a result of the public outcry over the Freeway Fire fiasco and the water district recalls.

      Public officials generally wave the flag and claim to be big proponents of the First Amendment and transparency and public engagement until the communications hit too close to home. Then they conspire to devise ways to shut the messengers down.

  • Shirley L. Grindle

    Moving public comments on “items not on the agenda” to the beginning of the meeting is a good idea. What is an atrociously bad idea is moving ALL PUBLIC INPUT ON ITEMS THAT ARE ON THE AGENDA to the beginning of the meeting. Each Supervisor is paid a handsome salary and part of their job is to receive public input – at the public’s convenience — not theirs. Furthermore, relying on individual Supervisors to take notes during the public comments period is laughable. This is just an indication to me that they already have made their decisions and public input be damned. Kudos to Todd Spitzer and shame on the rest of them.

  • Linda May

    Thank you, Todd Spitzer!

    • LFOldTimer

      Todd has an election to win in 2018. I don’t think he could vote to gag the residents at the supervisor meetings after the handcuff incident in Foothill Ranch. It wouldn’t be politically expedient. There are only so many faux pas that the voters are willing to overlook. He’s the same Todd who wanted to reduce the Grand Juror stipend from $50 to $15 that would barely cover their gas bill. Remember? But then in September he had no problem giving OCSD an 8.8% raise that will cost the taxpayers over $62 million during the contract term. That followed close to a 10% salary increase for the current contract term. Should be worth an endorsement.

      • David Zenger

        You hit the nail on the head. Every action of Spitzer’s from here ’til ’18 is going to be taken with a view to a direct mail hit-piece from our Good-as-no-DA-DA®.

        • Jacki Livingston

          I am unable to get work, thanks to Toddy and HR, and their never ending vendetta. So I fully intend to spend every day till then making sure that every resident in the OC finds out what a lying, rotten, scamming SOB he really is, and I have the documents to prove it. Gee, thanks, Toddy…all this time on my hands.

      • Linda May

        Thanks for your insights, but I don’t really care why a politician does the right thing. Doing the right thing is all I expect, but that is, sadly, really a lot to expect. And I speak up when they let me down, too.

        • LFOldTimer

          Thank you for your reply, Linda. I understand your logic.

          However, I view it differently. A politician who is driven by selfish motives nearly always disappoints in the end. Oh, we might get lucky once in awhile – sort of like a broken clock being right twice a day. But a selfish politician is erratic, inconsistent and unreliable. And I think that describes Spitzer to a T. I don’t look at individual votes. I look for patterns. Spitzer flunks on the patterns.

          Not my idea of the ideal representative.

      • Jacki Livingston

        After using them as his personal guido squad to come to my home to try and threaten me into silence. *snort*

    • David Zenger

      Ms. May,

      Please thank Todd in person, and while you’re doing it ask him (if it’s not too much trouble):

      1) Please stop harassing journalists with irrelevant and abusive legal ploys (Nixon would have loved it)

      2) Release the public documents relating to his attempt to misuse public resources to obfuscate his illegal “arrest” of Bible Boy at the fish restaurant.

      Thank you for considering this modest proposal.

      • Linda May

        Ok, I will. Thanks for the suggestion.

        • Jacki Livingston

          Should we send you some Chapstick?

      • Jacki Livingston

        Don’t forget how he got his wife to assign a worker’s comp case he was called as witness in to assign it to his long time close friend and personal law client, so he would never have to testify under oath about his taking donations from organized crime owners of local nursing homes.

    • Jacki Livingston

      Todd Spitzer is a lowlife, self serving, sleazy opportunist who is such a sissy pants that he hides behind the skirts of his wife and client to keep from testifying under oath. But, hey, so long as he is serving you…hunky dory. The thousands of patients being raped, robbed, killed and maimed in Long Term Care have no voice to kiss his behind with, so they get ignored.

  • The worst Gang of Five we have ever had. By my calculations (oh, I know, they probably paid for a study) they are theoretically saving 27 minutes. They know they have other ways of preventing an abuse of public comments. They can place restrictions on these three without unduly restricting the entire process. This is their excuse to eliminate public criticism of their lack of leadership. When did you ever see a conservative who wants open government? The only thing missing at this circus is the clown faces.

    • Oh, and let’s see how many notes Bartlett takes. I’m betting zero.

    • David Zenger

      That’s 27 minutes that could have been spent talking to lobbyists about the upcoming fundraiser.

  • LFOldTimer

    I remember when Orange County politicians actually conducted meetings that coincided with the traditional and patriotic concept that government was of, for and by the people. At that time the public was allowed to speak for 3 minutes on as many agenda items as desired.

    Then the fascist camel stuck his nose under the county’s tent. Speakers were restricted to 3 minutes for 3 items for a total speaking time of 9 minutes. They justified this by pointing their fingers at one or two speakers with claims that the meetings were being hijacked. So 3 million OC residents were punished for the purported acts of 1 or 2 activists.

    Now the hump of the fascist camel is inside the county tent. 1 single opportunity to speak for 3 minutes when the agenda contains 70 items of more. ha.

    What’s next? The speaker has to stick a golf ball in his or her mouth during the single 3-minute presentation?

    The purpose of public government meetings is to encourage transparency and participation. Otherwise everything would be done in secret behind closed doors – like they do in North Korea.

    If these supervisors are so thin skinned that they can’t stomach Klubnikin and are willing to restrict all of OC for his perceived behaviors – all of them need to clean out their desks and go find another job.

    The county just slid a little further down the slippery slope.

    • David Zenger

      “What’s next? The speaker has to stick a golf ball in his or her mouth during the single 3-minute presentation?”

      I know funny. And that’s funny. Why not make them stand on their heads, too? Wouldn’t want to make a “mockery” of the meeting of these estimable people, now would we?

  • David Zenger

    Fewer meetings, longer agendas, and less time to seek redress from our own government. I’ve sat through Klubnikin’s presentations and am no worse for it. The Supervisors get paid, and paid plenty to put up with free speech.

    It’s funny how the Supervisor’s time is so precious to them. And they’re hardly ever even in the building.

    What a disgrace.