For the first time in months, Orange County residents were each able to get their full three minutes’ worth of public comments during Tuesday’s county supervisors meeting – while OC remains the largest county in California to not offer call-in comments during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tuesday’s shift by Vice Chair Doug Chaffee came after months of restrictions by Chairman Andrew Do limiting commenters to one minute each, and in some cases just 30 seconds each at the public meetings.

Residents often have to wait hours in person during normal business time on a weekday in order to have their voice heard.

Do wasn’t at the meeting Tuesday, after announcing late last week he had become infected with COVID-19 and wouldn’t be attending the meeting while he quarantines.

One speaker on Tuesday expressed his gratitude for the change.

“To the person who decided to give us three minutes, a huge thank you,” said Anaheim resident Brian Kaye.

“I almost want to spend three minutes just thanking you for that decision. Despite all the other controversy, the fact that you’re giving each and every speaker the time to come up here and share, and express themselves.”

But it remains to be seen if speakers will continue to get three minutes each once Do is back in the chairman’s seat later this month.

Normally, Do cuts people’s speaking times down, depending on how many residents are waiting to speak. Sometimes he’s trimmed it down to 30 seconds per person.

Four of the five board members – Chaffee, Do, Don Wagner and Lisa Bartlett – didn’t respond to messages asking how long they want their constituents to be allowed to talk.

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Supervisor Katrina Foley said she’s against restricting the speaking time, noting it’s part of the elected officials responsibility in a democracy to listen to their constituents — including the criticism.

“It’s our job to listen to the constituents, the residents who come before us,” Foley said in response to a question from Voice of OC at an online news conference she held Wednesday.

“So I am not in favor of limiting the time – even though, depending on the items on our agenda, that may mean that we have to stay there into the evening,” she added.

“That’s our job.”

When people wait hours to speak at these consequential public meetings, they deserve to have their full three minutes to be heard, said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

“Especially for a jurisdiction as large and diverse as Orange County, they ought to be providing at least three minutes apiece for people who are willing to take time out of their day to come down and voice their views on matters of public interest,” Snyder said in a Wednesday phone interview.

“A minute is just not enough in most instances.”

Even with the public being allowed to speak for three minutes each, the meeting still ended by about 2:30 p.m., a couple hours before the end of the normal business day.

“The fact that Orange County has not ground to a halt … and the meeting ended at a reasonable time shows this is totally doable,” said Peter Eliasberg, the lead First Amendment attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, in a Wednesday phone interview.

“And the fact that the public was appreciative, that’s just a sign that it’s part of the board’s duty to listen to public comment,” he added.

“I can only hope that continues when Supervisor Do returns. Because the old practice was really a way to squelch the public.”

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Do’s efforts to limit public comments stretch back to early in his tenure as supervisor.

A few months after taking office in 2015, Do tried to restrict the public from making comments he found offensive at Board of Supervisors meetings.

“Week in, week out, every time we have a meeting, it seems like the berating is getting more intense,” Do said at the time.

“I know freedom of speech is something that’s very difficult to curtail or to define,” Do said. “But there has to be, I think, something that we need to put in place, because I’m just getting fed up with the kind of comments that I hear nowadays.”

That prompted immediate pushback from one of his colleagues, who pointed to a training on First Amendment protections for the public when addressing their elected representatives. 

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Orange County is the most populous county in California to not give residents the options of calling in to comment remotely at live meetings.

The two counties that are bigger in population – Los Angeles and San Diego – do offer call-in options to comment.

But Sacramento might change OC’s approach to public comments.

The state Legislature approved a bill last week that would require OC and other large counties to offer residents the option of commenting by phone at public meetings.

It’s now up to Gov. Gavin Newsom to decide whether to sign it into law.

If he does, OC supervisors would have to allow call-in comments by the beginning of next year.

But Eliasberg said they can – and should – choose to allow remote comments sooner.

“Orange County doesn’t have to wait until January 1 for the law to take effect. I am hopeful that the governor will sign the bill,” he said.

“A lot of jurisdictions do [allow remote comment]. Orange County should also.”

That has public support from one supervisor so far: Foley, who said Costa Mesa had a call-in system when she was the city’s mayor.

“It seemed to work out fine,” Foley said, after saying she supports phone-in comments.

“I have always erred on the side of allowing more people to speak, because that’s democracy. And so I’m not afraid of the speakers. they may not agree with me, they may not like me, but it’s part of our fundamental system, to allow public engagement.”

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

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