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After over six months of discussion and an election, Irvine City Council members on Tuesday decided to allow live public comments via Zoom at future meetings.

The new system would permit commenters their first chance to speak directly to council members since City Hall closed last March because of the coronavirus pandemic. The only way to address the panel since that time was a 500 character e-comment system through the city’s website, which also kept remarks submitted more than two hours before the meeting from being read from the dais. 

Calls for an update to the e-comment system came as early as April last year when community members who regularly attended meetings, where they previously were promised three minutes of uninterrupted time, posted their concerns about the new cutoffs. 

Similar issues have cropped up in other cities across Orange County, resulting in a wide disparity of public access as the county Board of Supervisors and some other agencies choose to still offer in-person meetings, while others went the opposite direction and restricted commenters entirely to online submissions. 

The first council discussion in Irvine about comments came in July, and after several conversations in the following months the panel voted to leave the decision up to the newly-elected members at their December meeting. 

Under the new system, members of the public can either call in or click on a link to comment live at the meetings, and the e-comment feature will now have room for 1,000 characters for each input. 

The council’s decision was in line with what commenters have been requesting for months, many of whom repeated their requests for a live system at Tuesday night’s meeting. 

“It is mandatory that we, the public, have access and the capability of commenting in a live forum format,” wrote Patricia Kennedy. “Giving input to the City Council members is a benefit so you hear all sides of an issue before your vote (e-comments may or may not be read.)” 

The council unanimously supported the new measures despite some concerns over what role the e-comment system would play in future meetings. Moving forward, e-comments will no longer be read aloud during the meeting and will be submitted to council members in a packet despite objections by Councilman Larry Agran. 

“I’ve found things that were put in front of me on the dais, they never got read,” Agran said. “If it’s not read aloud, if it’s not an in-person comment or not read aloud into the record, it seems to me it’s fake citizen participation.” 

Mayor Farrah Khan, who made the motion to adopt the new system, said she regularly read the packet of public comments while sitting on the dais and that it wouldn’t be necessary to have every comment read aloud.

The council also briefly discussed the issue of anonymous comments on the city’s website. City Attorney Jeff Melching recommended that staff could separate these from the main stack of comments but that the city was still required to submit them for council review. 

“I think all of us have had our name be abused in some way as a supposed resident giving a comment,” said Councilman Mike Carroll. “You do have the opportunity for abuse in this e-comment system.”

Agran agreed with Carroll, acknowledging that while the city could not compel residents to write their names, the comments did not need to be included among the other speakers. 

“Whether it supports me or opposes me, I pay very little attention to (anonymous comments). And some of them are just downright awful,” Agran said. 

Ultimately, the council didn’t vote on the issue of anonymous commenters, but did confirm the new system will be up and running by the council’s Jan. 26 meeting, according to Interim City Clerk Carl Petersen. 

“I’m very excited about this,” said Councilwoman Tammy Kim. “I believe that having residents be able to speak and comment in their own voice is very impactful, and very empowering for those making public comments.” 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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