About 20 minutes into her discourse on why the Hawthorne City Council should not adopt a proposed ordinance that would impose a five-minute limit on speakers addressing the council, 76-year-old Mary Berks was interrupted by Mayor Betty J. Ainsworth.
"Mrs. Berks, can you wind it up?" Ainsworth asked. "Can you summarize it?"
"Sometimes we have to talk a lot to get our message out," Berks snapped back.
She then talked for another 20 minutes about her quarrels during the Depression with union organizers she branded as Bolsheviks, the rights of animals and property owners, displaced persons and her ongoing fight against a city ban on front-yard parking.
"I hope that I have opened something up here," Berks finally concluded. "Remember, whatever you do will come back to you."
Only one other person spoke briefly against the ordinance, but council members said they had heard from a number of residents, and the message was plain: Most Hawthorne citizens saw the proposed limit as a restriction on their right to address their elected officials.
Council members said they had proposed the limit as a means of speeding up meetings and weeding out long-winded speakers. But Ainsworth said, "It doesn't matter what our intent was; it's what the people perceive it to be, and they perceive it to be a limitation on their rights."
The council voted 3 to 1 against the ordinance, deciding instead to ask at the start of each meeting that speakers limit themselves to five minutes.
The question of whether--or how--to limit speakers addressing city councils is likely to be reviewed in many South Bay cities within the next few weeks because of changes in the Brown Act--the state's open-meeting law.
Allows Public Discussion
Effective Jan. 1, cities will be required to post agendas of regular city council and city commission meetings 72 hours in advance and will have to allow public discussion on all items on the agenda. Council and commission members will also be prohibited from taking action on items not on the posted agenda, except in an emergency.
Cities now do not have to post agendas and do not have to allow public discussion on most agenda items except for advertised public hearings, although most cities do, according to Conni Barker, an attorney with the League of California Cities, a statewide lobbying and educational organization.
The changes also allow cities to limit the total amount of public discussion on a specific item and to limit the amount of time given to individuals to speak. Also, if public discussion of an item was provided at a council or commission committee meeting, public discussion does not have to be allowed when the item comes before the full council or commission.
Of the 16 South Bay cities, nine already have written rules limiting speakers to three or five minutes, although only Hermosa Beach and Gardena have gone so far as to formalize them by ordinance. The remaining seven South Bay cities leave it up to the mayor, who runs the meeting, to decide how much time to allow a speaker. The city of Los Angeles also does not impose a time limit.
System Works Well
Hermosa Beach Mayor Tony De Bellis thinks his city's system works well. "There are quite a few people here who are aware of what the laws are," De Bellis said, "and I think it would be a problem if we didn't have a limit written into an ordinance."
In Rolling Hills Estates, by contrast, the council allows unlimited time for public comment. "We've never really had a problem," said City Manager Ray Taylor. "We allow for a reasonable amount of time for testimony and if it starts to become redundant we would cut it off."
Redondo Beach Mayor Barbara Doerr, whose city has a three-minute limit, says, "Either system works fine. It's what you have become accustomed to."
In Redondo Beach, for example, the city has had a limit for the last 10 years. In September, after the number of monthly meetings was reduced from four to two, the amount of time for speakers was set at three minutes. Previously, speakers were allowed five minutes.
Timing Light Used
A traffic light used to enforce the limits changes from green to amber when speakers are down to their last 30 seconds and turns red when their time is up.
"The time light has worked fine for our city," Doerr said. "But we are continually extending time for people now that it is down to three minutes." Doerr added that when the limit was five minutes, most speakers were able to state their positions without any extensions.
Redondo Beach in the last few months has also experimented with when the council should hear audience comments. Redondo Beach, like many other South Bay cities, had listened to the public at the conclusion of the agenda. But, in September--after many residents complained that they were forced to wait for hours before speaking--the audience comments were moved to the beginning of the agenda.