They're starting to call it "Tuesday Night Live." They're also calling it a turn-off.
The live telecasts of Burbank City Council that made their debut Oct. 13 over a public access channel have been dominated--and, many viewers and city officials fear, taken over--by a large cast of regulars who appear before the council each week to complain.
And complain. And complain.
That cast includes an activist who hasn't lived in Burbank for several years, a janitor who yells continually during the meetings, a presidential candidate of the American Nazi Party, and a man who claims he is being harassed by helicopters and mysterious people with "sophisticated radar."
Council members are worried that the lengthy public comment sessions have caused meetings to run several hours late, and viewers are turning off their TVs. The council members are now grappling with a proposal to impose restrictions on the public rambling of citizens during the meetings.
The problem is that many of the issues brought up by that group of regulars often have little to do with agenda items or matters that the council can control.
The diatribes are causing anxiety among council members who say the so-called "oral communications" portion, which is set aside for citizen input, is taking priority over the "main event"--the handling of the council agenda.
Because of lengthy oral communications periods and public hearings, votes on city issues and ordinances have often been delayed by several hours. At times, the council has not gotten to the main agenda until about 11:30 p.m., 4 1/2 hours after the start of the meeting.
Alternative to 'Moonlighting'
Also, the weekly marathons are prompting viewers who have tuned in the council as an alternative to "Growing Pains" and "Moonlighting" to tune out in disgust, council members say. People who attend the meetings for a particular agenda item are becoming increasingly frustrated by the delays.
"Everywhere I've been, people have been telling me they're turning it off," Councilwoman Mary E. Kelsey said.
Councilman Robert R. Bowne said, "The tail is wagging the dog. There are a handful of individuals who are monopolizing a couple of hours of the public's time and our time. It's gotten worse since the televising."
Mayor Michael R. Hastings said, "We're not getting to the agenda when we're fresh enough. I don't feel as crisp as I could. The agenda is not getting the attention it deserves."
On meeting nights, there are separate agendas for the council, which functions as the city's governing body and as the city's redevelopment agency. Each agenda has an oral communications period with a five-minute limit. Often, several public hearings on proposed ordinances and resolutions may be scheduled on both agendas, and there are no time limits on public comment.
In an effort to make the council deal with the agenda before the start of "Late Night with David Letterman," Kelsey has proposed a shorter time limit on oral communications.
The present five-minute limit--all but ignored by the regulars--would be reduced to three minutes for matters on that night's agenda. A second oral communications period would be held following the regular council meeting, where speakers could talk on any subject for five minutes.
Kelsey said, "I'll stay till 3 in the morning if we put oral communications after the agenda, but we should deal with the important things first."
The council is not expected to vote on the proposal for a week, but it has already raised the ire of the gadflies--residents who relentlessly research documents, policies and rulings--and a few council members.
"There is no way on God's green earth that I will support a motion like that," Vice Mayor Al F. Dossin said after Kelsey made her proposal at last Tuesday's council meeting. He said most of the speakers at oral communications do address agenda items, and to change the present system would be "ludicrous and unfair to the public."
Councilwoman Mary Lou Howard said she does not have a problem with the current arrangement. She said most of the agenda items were handled routinely and without a lot of discussion.
"Besides, oral communications is my favorite part of the meeting," she said.
A previous Burbank City Council tried a similar experiment in 1983. But it only lasted two months. Public pressure forced a return to the current format.
A prominent council watchdog, Burbank Unified School District janitor Jules Kimmett, bellowed his opposition to any restriction on public comment at a recent meeting.
"This is a subtle, insidious attempt to curb the First Amendment," said Kimmett, 69, the chairman of the two-member Concerned Citizens Committee of Burbank.
"If people at home are disturbed and can't stay up, they've committed the second biggest sin by not coming to the council meetings," he said. "They should be here participating. The biggest drug addiction in this country today is the boob tube."