The often-comical or rambling public comments at City Hall meetings have been submittable via Zoom or by phone since the start of the pandemic, but the Board of Supervisors may vote to end that practice by the end of the month, forcing commenters to show up again to complain in person.
If you’ve ever watched an SF City Hall meeting in person or on SFGovTV, you’re familiar with the colorful and eccentric phenomenon known as public comment. It often consists of quirky, rambling stemwinder speeches from anyone who wants to talk, and frequently resembling the Patton Oswalt “Star Wars filibuster” scene from Parks and Recreation. As seen below, it also brings a dash of profanity or confrontation into the City Hall meeting proceedings.
But public comment can also be useful and fascinating. At last week’s SF Historic Preservation Commission meeting on the Castro Theatre, we heard public comment not only from local celebrities like Jello Biafra, DJ Bus Station John, and Donna Sachet, but we also heard from major film festival producers, or attorneys for the Castro’s owners the Nasser family, who made very crucial points that would not have otherwise been heard, if not for public comment.
When COVID hit, City Hall meetings all switched to being held on Zoom, and so public comment could be submitted via Zoom or telephone, which a lot of people loved and saw as an improvement. But it also made public comment, and the meetings themselves, go a lot longer than they would have otherwise. The December 2021 Tenderloin emergency declaration meeting went for nearly 11 hours and lasted until almost 1 a.m. on Christmas Eve; and the car-free JFK vote went for 12 hours, with nine freaking hours of public comment. Yes, these remote public comments open up democracy in a sense, but can also stifle democracy because regular people can’t hack meetings that go for up to 12 hours.
That’s why, as reported by 48 Hills, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman is proposing we end remote participation in City Hall meetings. This would apply to Board members just using Zoom if they were sick (which doesn't happen much anymore), but more significantly, you would have to get your ass to City Hall and attend the meeting in person if you wanted to summit public comment.
“A number of us have questioned whether this body and the public are well-served by unlimited remote public comment,” Mandelman said at Monday morning’s Board of Supervisors Rules Committee, which considered his proposal. The supervisor pointed out last year’s Redistricting Task Force meetings, some of which lasted until 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Mandelman complained that city officials were “beginning to consider their own actions in the wee hours of the morning, when their own thinking probably was not at its best.”
(Though Mandelman admitted he originally introduced this proposal last summer, but shelved it, because “colleagues kept getting sick.”)
Rules Committee chair, Supervisor Matt Dorsey, tied this to Mayor Breed’s pleas for downtown workers to return. “When we tell businesses, especially the big ones, to come back to the office, that it’s time to come back to work, then the city should put more skin in that game as well,” Dorsey said Monday. “This is something that small businesses are really counting on."
In a very San Francisco development, the public comment on the remote public comment legislation dragged on for two hours, with 38 people commenting. The vast majority of those were, in fact, remote public commenters participating by phone.
But Senior & Disability Action executive director Jessica Lehman showed up in person, to make the case of how crucial remote public comment is for that community. “It’s a burden for disabled people, and it’s a risk,” Lehman told the committee. “I am at risk if I were to get COVID, of death. And I took that risk today, and not lightly, and I question whether that was a good idea.”
Commenters made great points about conflicts caused by work and childcare. Others floated the idea of issuing remote commenter cards, like library cards, and only issuing them to those with a demonstrated hardship.
The Rules Committee was set to vote, but put the vote off to a later date. “I’d like to see if we can take a little more time to harmonize this board’s approach with other local government bodies,” Dorsey said. The committee voted unanimously to table the vote “to call of the chair,” which basically means kicking the can to a date yet to be determined. Sup. Dorsey did, however, indicate there would be a vote sometime in February.