June 6, 2014

Merced County supervisors limit public comment time at meetings

The Merced County Board of Supervisors kicked off a meeting this week with a new rule: Members of the public are allowed only three minutes to speak.

The Merced County Board of Supervisors kicked off a meeting this week with a new rule: Members of the public are allowed only three minutes to speak.

Previously, individuals had five minutes to address agenda items or related issues. The decision to limit public comment was made by board Chairman Jerry O’Banion, who said it was done to expedite the meetings.

“We’ve had a larger audience and more individuals that want to make comment,” O’Banion said. “I want to accommodate them, but I also want to get on with the county business of the meeting. I’m just asking that they try to be shorter and concise in their comments to the board.”

The decision didn’t sit well with Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, who said it infringes on the rights of her constituents. She aired her concerns about it during Tuesday’s board meeting.

“I wanted to state in public that there are 260,000 people in this county. There are a lot of issues that we deal with,” Kelsey, who has served on the board of 19 years, said at the meeting. “We’ve never limited our public opportunity to speak to three minutes on all items during any meeting.”

Kelsey told the Sun-Star on Friday that O’Banion’s decision was “unprecedented.” She said the board has limited public comment at special meetings but never at regular board meetings.

“In my opinion, it was purely an opportunity for him to shut down the public’s opportunity to speak,” Kelsey said. “I think five minutes is adequate. In three minutes, people can’t make conclusions or finish their thought or letter.”

O’Banion responded Friday by saying he introduced the idea of limiting public testimony at two prior board meetings, and no one expressed concerns. “I brought it up so the public and the board were aware what my thinking was, and not one of them responded to my announcement,” O’Banion said. “I think three minutes is adequate enough for them to express their concerns to the board.”

O’Banion said people needing more than three minutes can put written comments in a basket next to the podium. Those notes are entered into the meeting’s record and read by board members.

The new rule was implemented less than a month after a Sun-Star report detailed how the Merced County Sheriff’s Department examined the backgrounds of three people after they spoke publicly at several Board of Supervisors meetings. O’Banion said that issue isn’t connected to his decision to limit public comment. “Absolutely not. It never crossed my mind,” he said. “Nothing like that was on my mind when I decided to bring it forward.”

Fresno, Stanislaus and Mariposa counties allow five minutes for public comment at Board of Supervisors meetings. Madera and San Joaquin counties allow three minutes.

The city of Merced allows the public five minutes to make comments, but that occurred after Mayor Stan Thurston took over. Thurston said the public used to get three minutes, but he changed the policy after his 2011 election.

“After the change, I was told by so many people that they felt they have so much better access to the council. People really appreciated it and they still do,” Thurston said. “Adding an extra two minutes to public comment is not a high price to pay for the people’s time. Supervisors get paid very well, and if they spend a few extra minutes listening to constituents, it’s not a big burden at all.”

Thurston believes three minutes isn’t enough time for people to summarize their thoughts. “I’ve had to do it myself, and it’s extremely hard to sound coherent on a subject in three minutes,” he said.

The decision to change the Board of Supervisors public comment period is at the discretion of the board chairman, County Counsel James Fincher said. O’Banion offered to allow supervisors to vote on the issue, but they elected not to do so.

Supervisor Hub Walsh agreed the board meetings have drawn more public engagement recently, but said he supports O’Banion’s decision. “It does seem like we have more attendance for matters, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that folks want to come and speak to us,” Walsh said.

Walsh added he doesn’t believe limiting the comment period is an infringement of people’s rights. “If I was chair, would I do it differently? Maybe, but that’s not my decision,” Walsh said. “I think Mr. O’Banion was trying to expedite the meetings while still affording people the opportunity to speak during the meetings.”

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