The five-minute limit timeframe visitors to Banning city council have had to address their elected officials has been reduced.
Those precious five minutes each speaker has enjoyed during public comment periods have been unusual compared to what is permitted by other municipalities within Riverside County.
The County Board of Supervisors limits visitors’ comments to two minutes per person.
Five minutes will no longer be available for the public to address non-agendized items at Banning city council meetings, referring to matters that were not previously scheduled for discussion or consideration on the council’s agenda, which is publicly available 48 hours in advance of meetings.
In Banning City Manager Doug Schulze’s experiences working for cities in Washington and Minnesota, he had not witnessed government agencies offer similar five-minute opportunities for the public to speak to officials at meetings.
Consideration of reducing the amount of time speakers could use caused consternation among speakers whom were present at the May 12 council meeting.
Resident John Hagen was worried that “This is the only opportunity that the public has to address the council. A lot of time three minutes is not ample time to get your point across. It’s not like there’s a big line of people filibustering your meeting” and did not understand a need for the council to cut off a meeting attendee’s need to air their concerns and feelings. “There will be a lot of points that won’t be brought up.”
Former councilman Jerry Westholder said “I get it. You don’t like getting chewed out. Some of us are very forceful. But years ago the council gave us five minutes so we could speak. It’s not that long to endure somebody who had something to say in hopes we can change your mind. It’s not that bad. The reality is, we don’t get our voices heard all that often.”
Another resident pointed out that the council has encouraged the public to participate more often in meetings, and felt that decreasing time for the public to speak is “the signal, the message, that you don’t want us to talk” and suggested that it sounded like “you don’t want to hear us.”
Councilman David Happe said “I am all about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment to the Bill of Rights guarantees free speech. This proposition is in no way any kind of infringement on free speech. For myself, I wouldn’t want to reduce time on an agenda item” since those pertain to expected city business.
For items that do not appear on the council’s agenda, and of which council members would not have had time to study ahead of time and prepare responses to, “I think it’s totally appropriate for them to make their point in three minutes or less. Five minutes allows for multiple topics, a lot of wandering. Three minutes is standard and totally adequate. If you can’t get your point across in three minutes, maybe you should work on getting your point across before you present it.”
Art Welch suggested that if someone goes over three minutes, the city should respect what they have to say and let them finish their point. He would support having all comments regardless of situation to be dropped to three minutes, noting that no other municipal organization that he has attended allows for more than three minutes for speakers.
Welch would have preferred that the reduction in time be applied to items also on the agenda, which remains at five minutes each for any member of the public to address those items.
He voted against the measure because he believed that all items, whether they are on the agenda or not, should adhere to the common practice of three minutes practiced everywhere else.
Councilman Kyle Pingree expressed concern that “You’re saying that the conversation they’d like to have with us is not important.”
“That’s not what I’m saying at all,” Happe responded. “For expedience’s sake and getting to the point, and keeping perhaps to a single point or two, if someone has a grievance, an issue, great — I want to hear it. You can get your point across in three minutes.”
He was not convinced that reducing time for speakers would discourage people from attending meetings; rather, more people might come because “they know they don’t have to wait as long for an opportunity to express their opinion, or wait as long for their agenda item.”
Mayor Daniela Andrade pointed out that residents still have access to the council by phone, letters and e-mail, and council members tend to meet in person with members of the public to hear their views — and that more personal time is not officially limited to three or five minutes.
Letters and e-mails sent in for public participants who cannot attend meetings in person regarding non-agendized items are acknowledged by the city clerk at meetings. Unless a councilmember requests letters to be read to the council, they generally are not read into the public record.
City Attorney Kevin Ennis advised council that “Your rules of procedure do not require letters to be read, and are not required to be read aloud by law.”
Submitted letters are included in the minutes and available for public view once those are published.
Speakers who wish to address non-agenda items, usually during public comment sessions, at Banning’s city council meetings will now have three minutes to address their council.
The time limit for items of business on the agenda that the council needs to take action on will remain at five minutes.
The city will continue to prohibit unused speaker time to be ceded to other speakers.
Council members Happe, Andrade and Colleen Wallace voted for the measure, while Pingree and Welch voted against.