In a move that some Costa Mesa residents describe as an effort to stifle criticism, Mayor Eric Bever is asking his City Council colleagues to move public comments on items not on the agenda from the first part of meetings to the end.
The proposal also includes moving council members’ comments from the end of meetings to near the beginning. The city describes the move as allowing the council “to get to the critical items of the day.”
The public will still have the opportunity to comment on agenda items as they come up throughout the meeting.
But some residents argue that putting the main comment period at the end of meetings, which often run until 11 p.m. or later, would send a message that city leaders don’t care about what residents have to say.
“Oh, my gosh,” remarked Sue Lester, a former candidate for council and frequent meeting attendee, when a reporter first told her about the proposal.
“To move public comment to the end of the meeting is virtually like saying, ‘We don’t want to hear what the public has to say.’ When those meetings end, there’s very few people left.
“I think it would be a blatant maneuver to limit public comment, because they know that public attendance at the end of [a] meeting is minimal at best.”
The council is scheduled to vote on the proposal at Tuesday’s meeting.
The public comments period allows residents to speak to the council on issues not listed on that meeting’s agenda. Over the past year it has become a major speaking opportunity for critics of the council majority’s effort to outsource numerous city services.
A council supporter, however, says Bever’s proposal would actually increase public comment on key issues scheduled for discussion.
“I’ve heard concerns from residents who come to speak on a particular agenda item that they have to wait until 9, 10, 11 [p.m.] or later to have their three minutes,” said Colin McCarthy, an attorney and president of the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Association.
“It’s important for residents to be heard, especially the older residents and those with kids for whom later hours pose a problem.”
This reordering of public comments is Bever’s first initiative since he was appointed last week to succeed Mayor Gary Monahan.
While Bever hasn’t explained his reasoning behind the effort, he has previously shown a dislike for certain comments from the public. In early January when residents questioned the council’s creation of a high-paid management position at a time when city leaders said Costa Mesa faced financial trouble, Bever wasn’t fazed.
“If you guys don’t like it, well, tough luck,” Bever said at the early January meeting.
Local blogger Geoff West says the mayor’s effort is driven by disrespect.
“It clearly demonstrates the disdain Bever has for the residents of this city and for the process by which they are able to address grievances to their elected (and appointed) leaders,” West wrote on his blog, A Bubbling Cauldron.
The vast majority of Orange County’s 34 cities hold public comments close to the beginning of meetings before getting to the decisions of the day.
If Costa Mesa adopts the changes tonight, it would join a small minority of Orange County cities — about one in 10 — that hold public comments near the end of meetings. Of those, Irvine — the only city larger than Costa Mesa – ensures that the comments start no later than 6:30 p.m.
Lester says the move “would be tragic, and it would be a manipulation of people’s ability to speak in an open forum where they were heard,” adding, “if he doesn’t want to hear what people have to say, then tough luck. Step down.”
Bever didn’t return emails seeking comment.