HANFORD — For many years the Hanford City Council allowed members of the public to speak for five minutes during public comment, but the times are literally a changin’ now that the time limit has been reduced to three minutes.
“They’re limiting the very people they are supposed to represent,” said Hanford resident Bob Ramos. “It seems like the council doesn’t care what people have to say.”
This year has seen interesting and sometimes very long meetings for the City Council, but the one constant has been that Hanford residents show up to the meetings and never fail to let their opinion be heard.
The duration of Council meetings has always depended on what’s on the agenda. A light agenda should make for a short meeting, unless a particular discussion item is controversial in any way.
At the end of the Aug. 1 regular Council meeting, Mayor David Ayers made a request that a future agenda include reducing public comment time from five minutes to three minutes. The meeting on July 18 had been nearly four hours long.
The Aug. 15 meeting went on as normal, but by the next meeting on Sept. 19, the public comment time had changed to three minutes. Members of the public seemed surprised by the change, saying they don’t remember the issue being discussed at all.
They were right; the issue of decreasing public comment time had not been discussed. However, the change was legally approved by the council, albeit slightly under the radar.
The Aug. 15 meeting consent calendar had an item that stated “Adopt Resolution 17-44-R amending the Handbook of Rules and Procedures.” A more detailed description was given in the meeting’s agenda packet.
The consent calendar was approved by Council and the handbook has been amended to state: “Each speaker will be allowed three minutes, but the Mayor has the discretion to shorten the time limit to make an efficient use of the Council’s time.”
Items on the consent calendar are considered “routine” and don’t have to be discussed by Council unless they are specifically asked to be discussed by a Council member or a member of the public.
City attorney Mario Zamora said if there is a general consensus about an issue, then it can go on the consent calendar the next meeting. He said if a Council member or a community member has a question, then they can simply pull the item for discussion.
Ramos admits he missed the item, or he would have definitely pulled it for discussion. Nevertheless, he continues to give public comment at almost every meeting and is not shy about making it known he is not happy with the change.
Ramos expected there to be at least some discussion on the matter and said the fact that council didn’t discuss the issue or get input from the people that the rule affects only proves council doesn’t want to hear what the public has to say.
There have been times that meetings become unfocused or wander off into issues that aren’t pertinent to city business, Councilman Justin Mendes said. He said there have been times when commenters gave fake names or even read poetry in an attempt to filibuster.
“It’s the public’s right to go and speak to their elected representatives,” Ramos said. “That venue belongs to the people.”
Ramos said decreasing the time limit won’t make the meetings drastically shorter and said sometimes even the Council tends to “babble” in exactly the same way they accuse the public of doing.
The rule only has been in place for the last couple meetings, but Mendes and Vice Mayor Sue Sorensen said they both believe the time limit change is working.
Sorensen said she thinks the change hasn’t inhibited people from conveying their thoughts and concerns. She said it’s rare for anyone to need more than the time allotted.
Sorensen said the Council has two jobs at meetings: listen to public comment and take care of city business. She said reducing comment time allows getting both things done in a responsible, timely fashion.
Sorensen said it’s also about being respectful to people who are at the meeting to listen to a particular discussion, but have to leave because the meeting is taking too long. She said Council wants to be as efficient, timely and responsive as possible.
Zamora said Hanford was in the minority as far as public comment is concerned because most cities have adopted the three-minute limit and it is considered standard. He said past Councils even had a rule amongst themselves that meetings end at 10 p.m.; if everything was not discussed by that time, then Council would table the issues until the next meeting.
Zamora said public comment is important, but he hopes people don’t think that’s the only time they can speak to Council members.
“All of the Council members are accessible,” Zamora said. “They can talk to them at any time.”
This is a sentiment shared by both Mendes and Sorensen, who said they welcome the public to reach out to them with any concerns they have. They said this gives them time to bring the issue up at the next meeting or answer the questions right away if they can.