Santa Barbara City Council watchdog Anna Marie Gott won a small but significant procedural victory this Tuesday, beating back a proposal by Mayor Randy Rowse designed to speed up the pace of council meetings.
Rowse had proposed cutting back the time allotted to members of the public speaking at the “open mic” portion of council meetings that are allocated to items of public interest not on the agenda from three minutes to two. Because only 30 minutes are reserved for such comments, Rowse argued, the change would enable 15 people to speak, not 10, thus expanding the opportunities for public engagement.
In addition, Rowse — who has won praise during his first month as mayor for running brisk but open meetings — switched the sequence of the “open mic” sessions. Traditionally, they have been the first item; under his proposal, they’d come after “the consent calendar.”
Gott said she was “outraged” that Rowse would place the proposal on the council’s consent calendar and charged that his plan would diminish public participation and “negatively impact the deliberative process.” In the few instances that public speakers exceed their allotted time, Gott pointed out, Rowse — as the mayor — already has the discretion to reduce the amount of time members of the public have to speak.
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Gott raised a ruckus on social media, and by Tuesday’s meeting, she had six councilmembers agreeing with her, no doubt a historic first.
Darryl Scheck, head of SEIU Local 620, testified that Rowse’s proposal “seems antidemocratic and smacks of censorship.”
Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez opined, “The fluidity and spontaneity of the democratic process is essential,” adding, “even like having three minutes to speak instead of two.” Councilmember Meagan Harmon termed Rowse’s proposal “a solution in search of a problem.” Councilmember Kristen Sneddon expressed regret she couldn’t support Rowse’s “leadership and discretion,” but said the public comment accompanying the item accomplished what public comment was supposed to do: It changed her mind.
Rowse saw the handwriting on the wall but noted nonetheless that when he first broached the matter during a public retreat convened by the council two weeks ago, his proposal then enjoyed the unanimous support of the councilmembers.