The threat to end public comment by phone at City Hall meetings did not succeed at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, but a new set of public comment rules is in the works for mid-April which could somehow shorten those lengthy public comment sessions.
Before the pandemic came along, if you wanted to chime in on policy before the SF Board of Supervisors (or go on a whackadoo two-minute rant), you actually had to show up at City Hall and wait for your turn to talk in a process known as “public comment.” But once COVID-19 hit, the board allowed remote public comment by Zoom or telephone, so you did not actually have to hoof it to City Hall.
This was a nice change that enabled more citizen access to the legislative process. But the increased number of commenters also led to an 11-hour meeting that went til almost 1 a.m. on Christmas Eve in 2021, and a nine-hour public comment session on the car-free JFK Drive vote last year. In some cases, we had uncompensated, volunteer commissions have their meetings go til 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning.
Because of these excesses, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced legislation to end remote public comment, and that legislation went before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. But Supervisor Matt Dorsey introduced a flurry of amendments to Mandelman’s proposal. And in a bizarre example of how the legislative sausage-making works at City Hall, the Board approved Mandelman’s public comment legislation 10-1, with Mandelman being the only one who voted against the Mandelman proposal, because Dorsey’s amendments took such a sledgehammer to it.
“We’ve talked about this too much already,” Mandelman said of his legislation to curtail people from talking too much. “We do have a difference of opinion on this body about how best to use the limited hours of our public servants' time.”
What were these amendments from Dorsey? Dorsey’s office provided SFist with a copy of the yet-unreleased amendments, which are seen above. Mandelman’s language is crossed out with red lines, Dorsey’s amendments appear underlined in red. As you can see, these are substantial changes, though written in legalese.
We’ll let Dorsey’s words put it in plain English. “Yesterday I circulated amendments that would preserve our status quo of allowing unlimited public comment for all who seek to participate,” Dorsey said before Tuesday’s vote. “It would state that the intention of this board is to amend our rules to allow public comment by all, regardless of disability status.”
“I’ve seen these instruments of democracy misused, or even weaponized,” Dorsey added. “In the coming weeks, we’ll be introducing an actual amendment to the Rules of Order which would require an eight-vote [supermajority] threshold once it reaches the full board.”
So effectively, the remote public comment status quo stays in place until at least April 15, but some manner of new remote public legislation could still somehow trim it. Or as the technical legislation the board approved Tuesday says, “Until the Board amends the Rules of Order to provide for remote public comment, or April 15, 2023, whichever occurs first, the Board shall continue to offer opportunities to provide remote public comment to all members of the public who wish to comment remotely.”
So there will be more meeting on this over the next month, and more public comment on public comment at those meetings.
Image: SF Board of Supervisors