COVID-19 has certainly turned things upside down for everyone. It has even affected city council meetings in ways that no one expected. But, Milpitians, we are innovators! We have taken our city council meetings online and gotten more public participation through public comment. But, like with all things, some have taken it too far. There are too many examples of public comments, as well as social media posts, that have stirred up unnecessary hearsay that has tainted our community.
I won’t get into the social media black hole, but I’d like to suggest an idea for public comment. Public comment is how governing bodies can receive input from the public on the issues under their purview. And the council can choose to act on those comments by setting up a public hearing, asking city staff to follow up, or placing it on a future agenda. Pre-COVID, folks would sign in (register), and then be called to make their comment in front of everyone. But during COVID, we have lost that transparency. Folks can send in comments, and potentially “hide” behind fictitious names. And some of those comments have been inflammatory, racist, etc. Perhaps it is the long isolation of being stuck at home, or the stress or depression of the experience, but comments like that are NOT useful, and generally serve only a purpose of division. I don’t need to delve into this as we have a perfect example with the innuendo that passed recently between council candidates. And because California allows for anonymous input in public comments, these comments do need to be heard.
But—can we make public comment more useful for the council and staff? Let’s see if the following would work:
- Define public comment into two categories: Verified Public Comment and Unverified public comment
- Verified public comment is where staff verifies the commenter by asking to see a valid ID of some sort, such as a driver’s license, and asks the commenter for their name and contact information. That contact information is tied to the public comment so that if staff or council wants to contact that person, they can. Then through technology, staff can video-record the comment. All other public comment rules apply, such as the length of the comment, no restrictions on the content of the comment, etc. This may require the council to set a maximum time per comment at a minute.
- Unverified public comment is where a commenter wishes to be anonymous. This comment still needs to meet all the rules of public comment, but is unlikely to get any followup as there is not enough information provided. We should also video-record the comment, such as we can, just as we do with verified public comments.
- The downside of this proposal is that it will require more staff time, but public comments might be more useful, a bit more transparent, and less likely to be hearsay. Public comments would carry the opportunity for followup and could spawn real action. I’m reminded of the saying “Inspire with your words and lead by action,” but I digress.
I hope that city staff takes a look at the above proposal and sees if it is worth doing. I for one think it has the potential to make public comment more useful to staff, council, and the city on the whole.