Whether as a method of providing government feedback or a vessel for reaching the public, many Berkeley City Council commenters are in agreement: public comment in council meetings can be a valuable tool for the city’s citizens.
However, some suggest changes to its implementation, questioning the effectiveness of such comments and the way in which they are used by members of the public.
Berkeley stakeholders can comment in-person or virtually at the council’s regular and special meetings, according to the City of Berkeley website, or submit written comments to the City Clerk Department via mail or email before a given meeting. Written comments are added to the agenda packet or to supplemental packets depending on the time of their submission.
“Public comment, whether written or in-person, is critical to ensuring that the Berkeley City Council is responsive to residents’ needs,” said Councilmember Rigel Robinson in an email.
During meetings, attendees can comment on items not on the meeting’s agenda, on the Consent and Information Calendars and on the Action Calendar, as listed in the Council Rules of Procedure and Order. If a meeting’s items include appeals or public hearings, they are also open for comment.
The Council Rules of Procedure and Order specify a time limit of one or two minutes — contingent on the number of commenters present — for most public comments. For appeals, representatives of both sides are provided seven minutes to present, followed by a period in which other attendees may provide one-minute comments.
“You never know, really, if you’re effective,” said Lisa Teague, a member of the People’s Park community. “It’s mostly to remind the council that the issue is important to these real people.”
Teague noted that public comment is useful for the outside perspective it can provide the council. The extent to which a change might affect people and communities might not be fully obvious to those implementing it, they said, as a focus on procedure and implementation can eclipse such concerns.
As most attendees invested in a particular meeting topic are on one side or the other, Teague added, public comment is mostly for the benefit of the mayor and council.
Carole Marasovic, a member of the Commission on the Status of Women responding in an individual capacity, agreed that public comment helps officials receive outside opinions. She noted that the general public’s ability to hear these comments is also an important aspect of their effectiveness.
“Public comment is heard by not only Council but upper level management staff and the general public,” Marasovic said in an email. “It would be better if more staff were required to listen and more of the general public both commented and/or listened.”
Bike East Bay board member Marc Hedlund emphasized the importance of new voices in these meetings, noting in an email that the list of public commenters in each meeting often comprises “the same people again and again.”
A lack of fresh faces limits the representative ability of public comment, Hedlund said; input from the public is most valuable when it offers something the council has not yet heard or considered.
“One example I thought really shone through was when Telegraph for People members showed up in support of car-free Telegraph,” Hedlund said in an email. “Councilmembers mentioned repeatedly that they had not heard from Cal students in that number ever before. Getting away from the usual suspects (like me) and drawing in commenters who have a direct interest in a decision can be a huge benefit.”
Marasovic agreed that greater and more varied public participation would benefit city council meetings.
More commitment to drawing people into meetings — holding meetings on campus if they bear importance to UC Berkeley, for example — could encourage engagement, Hedlund said.
“Given that I recognize many frequent commenters at City Council and other public meetings, I would believe the vast majority of Berkeley residents never express any opinion to Council at all,” Hedlund said in an email. “I wish we had much broader and much shorter/simpler ways for people to interact with Council.”
Teague echoed this sentiment, noting that reducing waiting time for public commenters may increase attendance and participation. People currently tend to participate only when they feel strongly about particular controversial issues, they said.
Marasovic noted that community members are not required to identify themselves to comment, suggesting that some may be reluctant to give their input if they would need to provide their own names.
She said in an email that some people are discouraged from participating in public comment because they believe it is “too set up” with commenters unlike themselves.
“There is no typical Berkeley citizen because there are many types of people with varying perspectives in Berkeley,” Marasovic said in an email. “Nobody should be discouraged from providing comment.”
Teague, Hedlund and Marasovic all said the option to participate in council meetings virtually over Zoom facilitated greater public engagement and should be kept moving forward. Hedlund noted that, as a parent, the virtual option has made attendance much easier.
However, the three community members had differing opinions of the time limit imposed on public commenters, particularly regarding the shorter one-minute limit for more populous comment sections.
Marasovic noted that a two-minute limit ensures succinct comments. However, she said a reduction to one minute based on commenter numbers does not provide enough time and assumes that comments will be repetitive in some way.
By contrast, Teague said the time limit is not a significant restraint as long as commenters know how long they have to present.
“It’s better to have more voices,” Teague said. “It’s nice if you can ramble on for two minutes … however, if you can be concise then a lot of voices get their two cents.”
Hedlund, on the other hand, sees the allotted time per speaker as too long, not too short, making comment sessions more lengthy and tiresome than necessary — particularly as email is likely to be more effective for complex thoughts.
Some speakers talk over the mayor after their time is up and can extend their comment period by up to a minute, Hedlund said, noting that a greater commitment to cutting these attendees off would increase fairness and decrease meeting lengths.
The city council has modified public comment to increase its predictability and accessibility, Robinson noted, citing a unanimously approved March proposal to provide additional opportunities for comment.
“Now, public comment options will be available at the beginning of the Action Calendar and when each item is heard,” Robinson said in an email. “For workers, parents, students, and others who do not have hours to spend waiting to make their voice heard, this change will make it easier to participate in our local democracy.”
Further changes should include opportunities for comment after the council begins to discuss an item, Marasovic said.
She also suggested accommodations for issues with many commenters and attendees who must leave early.
“Give people a chance to be heard, consider their feedback and respond to it in aggregate,” Hedlund said in an email. “Make clear why you are deciding for or against—and then follow through on that decision!—and I think public comment would be somewhat less fraught.”