Council Revisits Handling of Public Comment

First published in the Aug. 13 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

During the Burbank City Council meeting on Tuesday, Councilman Nick Schultz requested the addition of an agenda item in the future to evaluate the public-comment procedure during council meetings.
The discussion is scheduled to take place next month during the Sept. 13 council meeting. It comes after the council voted at its July 26 meeting to eliminate public comment after staff reports, arguing that the public underutilized that specific comment period.
“Public comment is one of the most sacred and critical components of our public meetings. On July 26, I supported the staff recommendation to make hybrid public comment permanent, both in-person and telephonic, while discontinuing public comment after each agenda report due to low public participation,” Schultz told the Leader.
Councilwoman Sharon Springer voted against adopting the staff recommendation to alter public comment. “A key opportunity to speak and participate in the democratic process was eliminated in a 3-to-1 vote by my Burbank City Council colleagues,” Springer told the Leader.
“The elimination of any public comment for the reasons set forth is illogical, exclusionary, potentially dangerous, and can result in disconnected, out-of-touch government,” Springer said.
Councilman Bob Frutos was absent for the vote on July 26 because he was sick with COVID-19.
At the council meeting this past Tuesday, Schultz suggested that the council readdress the matter of public comment opportunities after pointing out a discrepancy between the new policy and the current city resolution that details public-comment procedures. He said he would like to discuss the length of public comments and the inclusion of public comments at the end of meetings.
In place of public response to staff reports, Schultz said, “I am proposing that we increase the time allotted for general public comment to five minutes at the start of each meeting, and I would like to see the return of final public comment at the end of each meeting.”
This is effectively the same procedure the city offered prior to 2017 but would include the recent addition of call-in comments. In 2017, City Council removed final public comment, and added an opportunity to comment after staff reports.
Jim Casey, a Burbank residential real estate agent, frequently utilizes public comment. He used to hop on his motorcycle and ride to City Hall to utilize final public comment if he heard something he disagreed with during a council meeting.
“I am in favor of returning to the old rules of five minutes of public comment at the beginning of every City Council meeting as long as the comment pertains to Burbank issues, and I especially think we need to bring back at least three minutes of final public comment at the end of each meeting,” Casey said. “As it is, there is no back and forth with members of the community and the council.”
Peter Pendergest is a local resident who lives near the new Raising Canes restaurant, which has brought traffic issues to his street. “The new rules that prohibit comments after city staff have delivered their reports is, to me, just further proof that the city departments are the ones really running the city,” he said.
Pendergest faced issues with the city when he was looking to make alterations to his home. He said that the process was drawn out, and that he had to meet many difficult requirements.
“With Raising Canes, the neighborhood didn’t learn anything about it until after the permits were issued. Our comments were for naught, because it almost seemed like the City Council was powerless to do anything,” Pendergest said.
Springer pointed out that the data used in the staff report referenced public comment utilization since May 2022, when the council returned to in-person meetings after meeting virtually during the pandemic.
“Should we not give public participation a little more time as we emerge from the COVID pandemic? People are still testing positive, staying home and avoiding the public,” she said.
Schultz said, “Public comment is about participation and transparency. The conversation around how to structure it should always be how to most effectively discuss the issues with our residents in an open forum. I hope to hear from our community about the various proposals to restructure public comment before we revisit the issue on Sept. 13.”