A majority of Irvine City Councilmembers voted to rollback some of its transparency measures, arguing they needed to increase efficiency, after residents from both sides of the political aisle gave one resounding message: leave the rules alone.

“The more critical issue is open public participation in a democracy,” said resident Luette Forrest during Tuesday’s public comment at the council meeting. “If you want efficiency, I suggest you work at Amazon warehouse in the future.”

The public comment period about the rule change lasted more than 40 minutes.

The process to change the rules started last November, when council members created a subcommittee featuring Mayor Farrah Khan and Councilman Mike Carroll to secretly discuss the issue behind closed doors. 

At the time, the city’s transparency rules were governed by Irvine’s Sunshine Ordinance, a law adopted in 2018 by the previous council that guaranteed a 12-day preview for all city agendas and public speaking time on all items brought before the council. 

Councilmembers and newly appointed city manager Oliver Chi said that while the rules were adopted with good intentions, they’d turned out to be “unwieldy,” in practice, forcing staff to finalize two agendas simultaneously and release extensive reports in supplemental publications because they couldn’t be finished on time. 

“This council by no means is not actively working to silence the public or do anything in secret,” Khan said at the Tuesday night meeting. “We’re simply working to provide the best possible complete agenda at one time.”

But councilmembers backed off many of their original proposals amid strong opposition from speakers in the room. 

The most controversial proposal in the original motion restricted public commenters to three minutes or less for the entire night, and capped discussion from all public commenters at one hour per meeting, regardless of what items were on the agenda aside from public hearings, which would receive separate discussions. 

Instead, the council voted to move the public comment time up to the start of the meeting, which was shifted an hour later to 5 p.m., and give speakers three minutes for each item they wished to speak on, ensuring they would keep the same amount of speaking time but would speak before the council’s deliberations. 

The council also killed the idea of a one-hour public comment limit, and promised a second public comment period for items not listed on the agenda. 

Special meeting notices were reduced to 24-hour notice, the minimum under state transparency laws, instead of the previous five-day notice. 

While the agenda publication dates will still be pushed from 12 days before the meeting to seven days in advance, councilmembers discussed potentially publishing a preview of what would be on the upcoming agenda without necessarily attaching it to an agenda. 

But many of the more unpopular rules stayed in, including a new clause that allows for the mayor to call for a spokesperson when multiple members of a group want to speak and states any “slanderous public statements are unauthorized.” 

“With regard to slanderous provisions, it’s a prior restraint. You can’t bar speech before it occurs,” said resident Eric Neshanian, a frequent critic of Khan’s. “You don’t want us at the table really, you want to keep us from the table. You’re going against the commitment to open government in California.”

Council members continued to insist throughout the meeting that all the measures they were taking were to increase the public’s access to the dais, with Councilwoman Tammy Kim saying she hoped the new system would make it so people didn’t have to wait as long to speak. 

“I think it’s important that people understand the Irvine City Council meetings we have, these are business meetings. These are the only opportunities we have to get together as a council to discuss business of the city,” Kim said. “The majority of people simply don’t have hours of free time to hang out in the council chamber week after week.” 

Despite those pleas, public commenters were not impressed, with many still sharing concerns over the final approved ordinance. 

Former Mayor Christina Shea, who served on the council when the Sunshine Ordinance was enacted in 2018, posted on her Facebook page a recall petition against the four council members who voted for the rules was “something to consider.” 

“How late do these Councilmembers stay up to come up with these nonsensical ideas to shut us out of talking in the public’s house?” Shea wrote. “The 4 members wish we would just go away and let them run the City with unfettered control.” 

Councilman Larry Agran, the only member on the dais to vote against the proposal, said public commenters should be allowed to talk about anything they want for their three minutes at the mic, regardless of whether or not it fell in the council’s jurisdiction. 

“My impression is we give the impression that we would just as soon not be bothered with the public. I think that’s the vibe we give off,” Agran said. “It’s our job to listen to people, to pay attention to people, to stay focused, and to respect their rights to be heard.”

The new rules will take effect at the council’s next meeting, which is currently scheduled for April 12.

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

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.