Huntington Beach City Council members could make a series of changes to the way their meetings are conducted and potentially scale back some public comment time.

The proposal was spearheaded by council member Natalie Moser earlier this month, when she cited transparency as the reason to create a new set of rules and guidelines for council meetings.

“Way back in 2020, one of my promises as a candidate to council was to make transparency a priority,” Moser said at a council meeting earlier this month. “I want everyone in the community to see and understand what the city council is doing for the community and why it’s doing it.”

The city’s 2022 council manual outlines the nuts and bolts of council meetings, the agenda-setting process, a code of ethics and more, but Moser said there’s pieces missing.

“While the Manual is helpful, there are gaps in its contents. For ease of use and clarity, the sections on Rules could be a focus of revision and reconsideration as a standalone ‘Rules of Order and Procedure for City Council Business’ by the City Council,” Moser wrote in a memo included with the agenda item.

Moser proposed an update to the city’s guidelines rules by putting them into one set of documents for city officials and residents.

She recommended that city staff prepare a draft set of rules by the council’s first meeting in November for consideration. 

Some of Mosher’s recommendations include clearly defining the responsibilities of subcommittees and ad hoc committees, the power and duties of council members and outlining how the public comment portion of the meeting is supposed to be handled.

The council passed the item on a 6-1 vote at the Sept. 6 meeting. Council member Erik Peterson voted against the item, but didn’t say why.

To read the proposal for the city’s new roles of order and procedures, click here.

Peterson did not respond to questions about his dissenting vote.

Some residents criticized the item during the public comment portion at the council meeting and on social media, saying the item was an attack on the public’s First Amendment rights.

Moser’s proposal includes new regulations on public comments at council meetings:

“Facilitating public comments: purpose, sign up and queueing process, time limits, circumstances that allow for limited dialogue between the City Council and public commenters, topics that can be addressed, use of signs and other props, distribution of multimedia materials to staff and Council, and procedures to manage disorderly behavior.”

Huntington Beach City Council meetings often include dozens of residents speaking during public comment.

At the Sept. 6 meeting, 27 people spoke during the public comment.

Some council members hinted at overhauling the city’s public comment period. 

Council member Dan Kalmick said public comment often pushes city council meetings late into the night, which sometimes means certain items are kicked back to another meeting.

“People complain we have so many special meetings, but we have to kick stuff because it’s 11 o’clock at night and we still have 15 things on the agenda,” Kalmick said at the meeting. “So, understanding how other cities do public comment — are we doing public comment right?”

Some Huntington Beach residents also bring signs to the public comment section — including a group of vocal residents advocating for a senior mobile home rental assistance program for people living at Skandia Mobile Home Park.

They have routinely been showing up to city council meetings calling on council members to put a measure on the November ballot asking voters to decide on a new law that would stop rent hikes at mobile home parks like theirs across the city. They are often seen in the council chambers with posters and signs.

City officials did not point to any specific groups during the meeting.

[Read: Senior Mobile Home Rental Assistance Program Coming to Huntington Beach; Is it Enough?]

After seeing Moser’s proposed rules regarding public comments and signage, some residents took to social media to speak out. Others came to the meeting to share their concerns.

“Our First Amendment gives all of us the right to express our grievances to our Local Government. Free Speech is Not Limited to Words it includes Signs and Banners,” Larry McNeely wrote in a comment sent to the council and included with the staff report. “This Agenda Item is ILLEGAL by every measure and will be contested in the court and public opinion.”

Moser responded to comments saying that establishing new rules will increase transparency and help fend off distrust.

“We never want to take away anyone’s First Amendment rights,” Moser said at the meeting. “That being said, that doesn’t mean that there can’t be any rules about things. We need to be able to understand what’s appropriate.”

Moser pointed to the City of Torrance in Los Angeles County that has council meeting rules prohibiting signs, objects or symbolic material larger than two feet by three feet.

The majority of the council agreed it would be best to review other cities’ methods, rules and proceedings to best decide how to function as a local public agency and include more residents in government — especially with the looming election.

Four city council members’ terms end this November — Mayor Barbara Delgleize and council members Mike Posey, Kim Carr and Peterson.

“I will support going back to the drawing board on the city council manual, and it’s especially going to be timely for four new city council members coming in so that they really understand their job and the gravity of the position they hold,” Posey said at the meeting.

Newport Beach had a similar topic at the Sept. 13 council meeting. The item was on the consent calendar and unanimously approved without discussion.

On July 26, council member Will O’Neill proposed the agenda item that would approve the creation of a committee to review the Newport Beach Municipal Code and Council

Policies.

The committee would submit recommendations about deleting or reducing language in the documents. The group would consist of three council members — appointed by the mayor — to discuss changes and report any recommendations back to the council by June 30, 2023.

The staff report explains that the Board of Library Trustees, the City Arts Commission, the Harbor Commission, the Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission and the Planning Commission will also be directed to each form a committee to review the municipal code and council manual and submit back to the council within the same time frame.

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed a quote about signs. It was Larry McNeely, not Shannon Levin, who raised First Amendment concerns about signs. We regret the error.

It was also updated to clarify that city officials didn’t point to a specific group as a basis for considering the rule change proposal.

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