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City Council Tries to Nick the Time : Santa Monica: Lawmakers want to put tighter limits on public comment.


Joy Fullmer has a lot to say about what goes on in her town, and at every Santa Monica City Council meeting, she exercises to the limit her right to say it.

That means she speaks on nearly every agenda item on which the public has a chance to address the City Council, and she uses all the time allotted under the council's rules of order--five minutes for the first trip to the podium, three minutes for subsequent trips.

At a typical marathon meeting, such as last Tuesday's, that can mean six trips to the microphone and 20 minutes of talk. She was clocked last year by one official as speaking for a total of one hour at a single meeting.

A council gadfly for years, Fullmer spends hours at City Hall each week poring over staff reports and taking copious notes to help prepare for her remarks--which often stray from the subject at hand. (To be fair, council members sometimes wander off the point in their orations too.)

Soon, however, Fullmer will have to either start talking faster or content herself with saying less.

Lawmakers in this bastion of progressive, participatory democracy last week directed the city attorney to draw up a new set of meeting rules that appear designed to muzzle Fullmer. The rules would, among other things, limit any speaker who has already commented on two items at a meeting to one minute for subsequent comments.

"It isn't only Joy," Santa Monica Mayor Judy Abdo insisted in an interview. "There are other people who have abused (the public speaking opportunity). When some people talk too much, it cuts down on other people's access."

Council members bill the proposed change as a more democratic way of doing business. The theory is that the change will afford more people a chance to speak at the meetings, which often drone on past 2 a.m.; many residents who sign up to speak end up departing before their turn comes. (It was about midnight at last Tuesday's meeting that the matter of changing the speaking times was raised.)

"I have some misgivings about what we did, but on balance I think it's the best choice," said Councilman Ken Genser. He said he has been getting complaints about the length and content of the meetings from constituents.

Under the state and federal constitutions and various local and state laws, members of the public are entitled to speak on a variety of subjects, said Santa Monica City Atty. Robert M. Myers, but the length of time is up to the public body.

"A time limit on oral speaking does not drastically restrict someone's ability to be heard," Myers said, because written comments can be submitted and placed into the record.

Several council members acknowledged that their own long-windedness is a significant part of the problem of long meetings.

Newly elected Councilman Tony Vazquez gingerly raised that point at the meeting, his fourth since winning office. "We should exercise the same restraint," he said.

Veteran Councilman Herb Katz, who along with Genser brought the matter before the panel, was more blunt. "Council members must learn self-discipline. . . . We've got to quit posturing . . . and have to stop speaking on every item," he said in a later interview.

The only dissenting vote was council newcomer Kelly Olsen, who said he remembers too well his recent activist days of trying to cram his remarks into the alloted time. Olsen said he wants to know what members of the public want and is willing to give them ample time to express it. To do otherwise is contrary to what Santa Monica is all about, he said.

"If you are so interested in being home early, you shouldn't be sitting here," he said to his colleagues.

A separate measure by Olsen to take public hearing matters earlier in the evening also passed the council.

Under current rules, a speaker has five minutes to make his or her first remarks, and three minutes for each subsequent item. If more than 20 people want to speak, or more than seven sign up to comment on one item--which is often the case--the three-minute limit is cut to two minutes. The rules are sometimes modified if an issue generates a large turnout.

If the new rules are approved as proposed at the next meeting, speakers will be allowed three minutes for their initial remarks, two minutes for a second item and one minute thereafter. Speakers will be able to choose how to allot their time.

The change does not apply to appeals from the Planning Commission, in which each side gets 10 minutes to present its case.

Fullmer insists that she would prefer not to have to offer her views so often to the City Council.

"If they had significantly solved the (city's) problems, I wouldn't have to be speaking," said Fullmer, who declined to provide information about herself or to be photographed.

A public hearing on the resolution containing the new rules is set for Jan. 22.

Fullmer said she does not take the council's plans personally. But, yes, she does plan to have her say on the matter.

"This is not a good sign," she said.

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