Friday, February 03, 2012

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky talks back

Gadfly Arnold Sachs says he likes to "annoy the board"
by speaking on every agenda item. Photo by Daily News
A public comment of my own

January 24, 2012

For the past several weeks, a lot has been said and written about my proposal to modify the amount of time each member of the public is allotted for comment during our weekly Board of Supervisors meetings.

Unfortunately, much of that discussion has lacked balance, context and, at times, accuracy, thus serving mostly to misinform people about what I’d hoped to achieve upon becoming the board’s chairman in December. As a result, the prevailing narrative has become this: we on the Board of Supervisors believe that when it comes to our meetings, the public should be neither seen nor heard.

The most recent example of this was a lengthy story in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times. Appearing on the front page, it flatly and wrongly asserted that I think “members of the public talk too much” and mischaracterized fundamental elements of the proposal. Inexplicably, I was never asked for my comment, even though the piece was aimed squarely at me. Had I been asked to do so, readers would have come away with a fuller understanding of the issue.

The truth is I wish we had more public engagement. Our huge hearing room is often empty, despite the breadth and enormity of matters the board confronts every week. In this regard, we are not alone. Visit City Hall and you’ll find much the same. Recent coverage would have you believe that we want to yank the microphone on a public that’s clamoring to be heard. This is not the case.

Most weeks, the same tiny cadre of individuals speak on a multitude of agenda items—sometimes dozens of them in a single meeting. Under the current practice, they’re allowed to talk for two minutes on each item and then can speak for an additional three minutes at the end of the meeting on non-agenda matters. One of these so-called gadflies admitted to a Daily News reporter recently that he had signed up to talk on every agenda item simply to “annoy the board.”

Of course, this is his right—as it is the right of another of our regular speakers to participate in this weekly spectacle by repeatedly delivering the same racially-tinged diatribe against undocumented immigrants and reciting the names and addresses of those she alleges, without evidence, of being “gangbangers.”

But under California’s Ralph M. Brown Act, it’s also the right of government bodies to impose reasonable limits on public comment as a way to ensure a healthy balance among all stakeholders in the meeting process. All our local legislative bodies have rules to this effect, including the Los Angeles City Council. In this spirit, and at the suggestion of our County Counsel, I proposed that our rules be modified to give speakers a three-minute block to discuss their agenda items—rather than two minutes for each one—and two minutes at the end of the meeting for general comment.

While this might be a tight squeeze for the small number of gadflies bent on testifying about virtually every matter before us each week, we considered it a fair policy for the vast majority of people who, in good faith, take time out of their days to travel downtown and speak on the one or two issues that directly affect their lives.

Now, we’ve put the proposed changes on hold so that our county attorneys have time to correct misperceptions and explain the board’s motivation to concerned stakeholders as we move forward.
For those of you who’ve followed my time in public life, you know that I’ve been a consistently strong advocate of government transparency—a record that includes, among other things, my successful push to make board meetings available to a wider audience by having them webcast, televised and posted online with transcripts. As some of you may also remember, I authored Los Angeles’ first freedom of information act while serving on the City Council.

So I encourage you to join me at a Tuesday Board of Supervisors meeting and see for yourself what all the controversy is about. You be the judge. Take it from me, you can’t trust everything you read.

Posted 1/24/12

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