Viewpoint: Public input means everyone can participate
by Bob Gerecke | Special to the Courier
At the Claremont City Council’s recent meeting, several people used remote comment to make antisemitic and racist rants. This was outrageous and justifies protective action. In response, our city manager and Mayor Ed Reece announced that remote comments via Zoom or phone will no longer be allowed at meetings. This will exclude anyone who cannot attend in person: the elderly, caregivers, those who are handicapped, parents with small children, commuters, etc.
This comes on the heels of two other actions against our comments. The first was to stop reading our emails aloud, so we don’t know what written information and advice others have offered, they don’t know ours, and we lack evidence that our emails have even been read. The next was to cut a speaker’s time by 25%, from four minutes to three.
All of these actions were decided without public discussion, public input and a vote by the council. This is not a democratic process. It all gives the impression that our input is not very welcome and will be silenced if possible.
This impression is reinforced by the reported behavior of our director of community services at the recent Sustainability Committee meeting. He supposedly objected to a member of the public answering a committee member’s question, because the answerer had already spoken for three minutes!
Only a few other cities and counties have cut off all remote comments in response to hate speech. There are alternatives, but issuing a press release the day after the council meeting does not inspire confidence that our leaders explored them or researched potential sources such as the Anti-Defamation League, League of Women Voters or American Civil Liberties Union. They certainly didn’t ask us. Their decision seems like a knee-jerk reaction that imitated knee-jerk reactions by a very small percentage of other California jurisdictions.
Since having remote public comments is discretionary under state law, perhaps the easiest alternative may be to allow comment on agenda items only. If someone speaks off-topic, the meeting chair has a legal right to cut him off and in fact always announces that relevant comment only will be allowed. That will cut off the rants without silencing legitimate input on the decision items.
Another alternative may be to allow remote comments by phone only as well as on agenda items only, using a system our city used during the pandemic. The commenter phones staff before the meeting and leaves a number to be called when it’s time to speak. If the commenter rants off-topic, he or she can be cut off, and the phone number (it’s public record) is available to anti-defamation advocates who request it, to identify the caller and to use as they choose.
Both of these will discourage haters from calling and will cut off those who do call.
We should choose a course of action that throws out the bathwater but not the baby, that minimizes exposure to hate speech but encourages legitimate public input. And we should decide our policies in a democratic manner consistent with our city council’s adopted 2022-24 priority to “Promote Community Engagement Through Transparency and Communication.”
Our city leaders’ choice to block everyone who can’t physically attend a meeting, instead of using a less draconian alternative, may also violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. Allowing remote written comment only, which is not read aloud in the meeting, prevents the disabled from being heard by fellow residents and from adapting their comments to what was said during the presentation of the item. It discriminates against them by unnecessarily denying them the same opportunities as others and by failing to make a reasonable accommodation.
We need a city council agenda item, public discussion and a full council vote on the three steps taken to restrict or conceal our comments and on our entire public input policy. Remote comment must be allowed for this agenda item. Otherwise, those most directly affected by the prohibition against remote input will be unfairly blocked from speaking about their own exclusion.
Please advise our council members by phoning the 24-hour citizen comment line (909) 399-5389 or by completing the email contact form at https://www.ci.claremont.ca.us/how-do-i/contact-the-city/citizen-feedback.