City Council Sets New Public Comment Policy

First published in the April 16 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

The Burbank City Council decided this week to allow members of the public to continue to comment during meetings via phone once the chambers reopen.

The council’s unanimous vote, held Tuesday, was a departure from city staff members’ recommendation to return to the pre-pandemic policy, which would have fully eliminated phone-in comments in lieu of in-person speeches.

Instead, community members will be able to address council members — either in person, starting May 3, or via phone — on any matter at the beginning of the meeting. In-person attendees will also be able to speak before the City Council discusses each item.

Residents will be limited to a maximum of three minutes per comment, and they will not be able to speak on an agenda item during both the general and item-specific public comment periods.

They will also still have the ability to comment on items prior to the meeting at burbankca.gov/ecomments or contact the City Council directly via email at citycouncil@burbankca.gov.

Proponents of the shift said it will allow community members to speak to council members directly, while providing those who don’t want to or can’t attend meetings in person an opportunity to address the panel.

“Calling in seems to be the most effective way and it ensures that council members and staff will receive and hear [us],” Ashley Ramsey, a member of the city’s Park, Recreation and Community Services Board, told the council on Tuesday.

She added that she is often out of town and wants to keep the opportunity to address the council virtually.

Currently, public city meetings only have a single public-comment period at the beginning of the session, with community members calling into meetings via phone.

City staff had recommended the City Council discontinue the phone-in option, saying operating the system is difficult and costs about $3,000 per meeting on average, not including board and commission meetings.

Managing a phone queue for people wanting to speak before specific agenda items would likely prove challenging for city staff members, Assistant City Manager Judie Wilke said.

“I’m not trying to [say] I want to prevent public comment, because that’s not at all the situation,” she said Tuesday. “It’s just logistically not very easy.”

Officials also told the council in a staff report that out of the 21 cities they surveyed, 13 — including La Cañada Flintridge, Oceanside and Santa Clarita — had resumed in-person public-comment periods.

The other eight, including South Pasadena, Glendale and San Francisco, hold meetings in-person but allow community members to call in via phone.

The City Council agreed to try the hybrid approach for a few months, planning to evaluate the policy around the end of July. Council members also instructed city boards and commissions to implement a hybrid model, but left it up to each group to determine the details.

Council members Sharon Springer and Bob Frutos raised the idea of allowing in-person attendees to comment on individual items, a policy held prior to the pandemic.

“Let’s give it a try for three months,” Springer said. “We have people who can’t come in, and calling works for them, but we have people who are eager to come [in person].”