The City Council’s 20-person speaking limit is silencing some members of the public

Kimberly Walters wanted to be heard. For weeks, she’d been campaigning against a plan to build a controversial storage facility along the Los Angeles River, and now was her chance to talk directly to the City Council.

But when she signed up to speak at their meeting Tuesday, she was denied. There was not space, officials said, for her to voice her opinion.

“It’s understandable that there would need to be some changes because of COVID but doing things telephonically should allow more people to participate,” said Walters, who works as a professor at Cal State Long Beach.

The 20-person limit on public speakers put in place in June has mostly flown under the radar, but for the second week in a row it resulted in the most controversial item on the council agenda receiving no verbal pushback from the public.

Last week an emergency meeting called to approve a lease with the federal government to hold up to 1,000 migrant children at the Convention Center received unanimous support from the council after a list of speakers almost unanimously praised the idea.

While allegations have been levied that the city put this rule in place to limit dissent, City Clerk Monique De La Garza said that the decision to place a cap on speakers was made for a variety of reasons, including COVID-19 safety precautions, staffing levels and providing good customer service.

De La Garza’s staff administers the meetings every week, and because City Hall is still closed, it requires multiple staff members and IT support staff to monitor calls from a small room.

They run through a checklist with every caller to ensure that speakers know how the system works and what they need to do when their item comes up, including unmuting themselves. De La Garza said that 20 people per item was what they could successfully manage.

But the recent abuse of the rule has not gone unnoticed.

“I don’t think we realized it was happening until this meeting,” she said of this week’s council meeting.

De La Garza acknowledged that Tuesday’s speaker slots for the controversial project filled up in three minutes, with opponents of the project alleging that the list of speakers was stacked by a lobbyist representing the project developers.

While only a handful of speakers ultimately used their time, their slots were occupied. De La Garza said her office doesn’t allow for people to be on standby, but does allow speakers to give up their space in line to another person of their choosing.

“But we’re not hunting them down,” De La Garza said.

She said her office had tried to take proactive measures to prevent something like that from happening but was told that the city’s system didn’t have the ability to require unique IP addresses for each individual signing up.

Other options like going to a lottery system could anger people who signed up early but were left off the final list and could lead to other transparency issues.

Mike Murchison, the consultant who was accused of coordinating the takeover of the public comment period, denied orchestrating signups and said he only helped register his wife, who has lived in the community where the project is going to be built for over 22 years.

Murchison said that the other side had ample time to speak because the hearing allowed opponents 30 minutes to articulate their position and that it should have been part of their strategy to get people to sign up, adding they were “not quick enough on the draw.”

He was critical of one change to the city’s public speaking rules: the time allowed to each speaker.

“I do think the old system, where they allowed people to speak for three minutes, that they should go back to that,” Murchison said. “It’s very difficult to get anything across in 90 seconds.”

Changes to the public comment policy are unlikely in the coming weeks as the city works its way back to allowing in-person attendance, at which point the 20-person limit will be abandoned. De La Garza also said that the city is hoping to deploy new tablet sign-up stations to make it easier for people to do that once people are let back into the council chambers.

For Walters, the experience on Tuesday was demoralizing. Between being blocked from public comment and an email sent out less than an hour after the meeting ended celebrating the project’s approval, she’s uncertain if she’ll continue with her activism.

The option for Walters and others to have their voices heard through an email or e-comment was not an appetizing one. Walters said there’s no point in submitting those if the decision makers aren’t going to read them all before voting to approve or deny a project.

“That didn’t seem like a hearing to me, it seemed like a foregone conclusion,” Walters said. “For a newcomer like me it felt every undemocratic and kind of demoralizing to ever do this again.”

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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