Cambrian: Opinion

Elected officials hear you even when it might not seem like it

Elizabeth Bettenhausen speaks to the Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors in 2014. California’s Brown Act restricts responses from elected officials to members of the public making comments about items not on the agenda.
Elizabeth Bettenhausen speaks to the Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors in 2014. California’s Brown Act restricts responses from elected officials to members of the public making comments about items not on the agenda.

If you’ve been in Cambria for any length of time and attended a public meeting, you’ve probably seen elected officials listen to a series of 3-minute comments from members of the audience concerning “items not on the agenda.”

You may have seen these same officials appear to squirm or even bite their tongues as they listen to critiques, allegations and statistics (some of which, you can tell, they’d just love to dispute).

But in the end, they sit there and say nothing — which seldom leaves anyone happy: The officials can’t defend themselves against accusations, challenge flawed statistics, clarify policies or answer questions that might put controversies to rest before they can go any further. The public speakers, for their part, are left with the impression that the officials aren’t really listening and have no interest in responding to their concerns.

Here’s the rub: The officials can’t say anything without violating a provision of the Brown Act, California’s open-meetings law, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

One thing the Brown Act does is keep public officials from pulling a fast one by discussing items that aren’t on the agenda. And if they responded to public comments during this portion of the meeting, they’d be doing exactly that.

Agendas are made public to ensure that people who have an interest in various items can plan on attending meetings at which they’re scheduled to be discussed.

If those items aren’t on the agenda, a lot of interested people might stay home. (Be honest: Do you have much interest in attending a two-, three- or four-hour public meeting if you don’t feel like you have a direct stake in what’s being discussed?)

How might things play out differently without the Brown Act?

Imagine a vocal critic of particular board policy only shows up at meetings where that issue is discussed. Imagine, further, that it’s not on this week’s agenda. A board member who supports the policy — and doesn’t want to deal with the critic in question — realizes the person isn’t likely to be in the audience and asks a friend to attend the meeting.

He tells the friend: “Hey, I need a favor. Just bring up this policy during the public comment period, so we can talk about it when that obnoxious so-and-so isn’t here.”

What this amounts to is something resembling a “plant” in the audience for a snake oil salesman’s rigged demonstration of some supposedly miraculous cure.

The audience member’s “favor” to his friend on the board opens the door to a discussion that should never have taken place.

Without the Brown Act restriction, the board member is free to respond to the speaker — and other board members can start discussing the policy, too. All of a sudden, an item that wasn’t even on the agenda is being treated as though it had been there all along.

So there’s a good reason public officials look like they’re being unresponsive to the public during open meetings. But that doesn’t make it any easier on those folks who attend in search of answers.

The downside to this particular Brown Act restriction is that the public has to wait for an item to be put on the agenda before it can get a response from board members — which can be aggravating for those who may not be able to attend consecutive meetings.

Upsides and downsides

Is it worth it?

Probably. Removing that restriction would render any agenda requirement all but meaningless. Agendas could be modified or circumvented on a routine basis just by introducing new topics during the public comment period.

Still, there’s no arguing the fact that the system can seem sluggish and halting — and even more frustrating when topics raised during public comment aren’t included on subsequent agendas.

Of course, not every issue raised by a member of the public should be automatically placed on the following week’s agenda. These meetings are long enough as it is, and promptly agendizing every topic suggested by a member of the audience could make them seem interminable.

But officials do owe it to the public to ensure items of high public interest are placed on the agenda — if not for action, then at least for discussion — as quickly as possible, and to schedule meetings on hot-button items so they’re accessible to the largest number of interested parties.

Some agencies facilitate public access to their meetings by making them available for viewing online, as the Cambria Community Services District does at http://bit.ly/slospanccsd. This is an essential service, especially in a community where some members may find it difficult to attend meetings because of work or health limitations.

But it’s not enough. There’s no substitute for being able to speak your mind to the board members — even if they can’t say anything in response.

No matter how it might appear, it’s not that they don’t hear you. They’re merely obeying the law.

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