City council meetings are the heart of local government. They are officially noticed by the City with a published agenda to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be aware of what’s being discussed and to witness live or recorded meetings and/or participate as they choose.
Councilmembers have a duty, at a minimum, to attend those meetings so that deliberations and communications of the seven-member elected body are in full view of the public. The public’s right to witness council meetings, and to an expectation that their elected officials are present to participate, is paramount to transparency in government.
Council meetings may be watched in-person or remotely via live stream, and they are recorded for viewing anytime. Anyone wishing to participate in council meetings by commenting on agenda items or on items not on the agenda may do so in two ways:
1. By speaking in-person at a council meeting within the maximum three-minute time limit per person, reduced to two or even one minute each, depending on the number of speakers.
2. By sending written comment to the City Clerk.
No matter work schedules, family life, mobility/health issues, etc., all who choose to provide comment may do so already in one way or another, and both become part of the public record either through video or inclusion in the written agenda packet. Providing written comment in advance of city council meetings is as easy as emailing the City Clerk at [email protected], using regular mail, or by having someone hand deliver to City Hall during business hours.
Our recent experience with Covid and virtual meetings showed us what can happen at council meetings when virtual participation (hybrid meetings) can come from outside our jurisdiction and in large numbers. For example, we had nearly two hours of public comment from people outside of Gilroy (many out of state), calling in to influence the Gilroy City Council regarding land use near Gilroy Gardens. On multiple occasions we had virtual participation from numerous members of political activist organizations outside of Gilroy professing to speak for Gilroy residents as to what should or should not be on our Gilroy City Council agenda.
This magnitude and frequency of outside public comment during council meetings that’s enabled by remote participation hinders the ability for comments from our own constituents to stand out and be differentiated from those with whom our allegiance does not belong. Since we cannot limit comments to our own local community members or force people to identify themselves, hybrid meetings are a convenient vehicle to muddle Gilroy City Council meetings with virtual comments that dilute the voices of our own community and foster a false appearance of constituent support.
As you consider your own opinion about adding the use of virtual public comment to our Gilroy City Council meetings, consider its potential to mislead on what is or isn’t coming from our own community. Consider that Gilroy’s jurisdictional region is small and that council meetings are easy to access by those wishing to participate in-person, and that written public comments allow for participation by those who cannot or choose not to attend in-person. Ask yourself who the addition of remote public comments stands to benefit more, and how your local government is impacted when people outside of Gilroy, including those solicited and pre-organized to speak, can take away from the purpose of our local city council meeting, the agenda items we’re meant to address, and the accurate reflection of what our own community wants.
Public comment is as much the heart of local government as are council meetings themselves, and the comments your city council should be listening to are the ones that come from you, the ones who elected us to represent Gilroy. Before jumping on the bandwagon of “It’s what everyone else is doing,” I implore you to be mindful of the downside we encountered over the recent two years of virtual public comment, and to consider that it may not be the best approach for Gilroyans to have the strongest voice in their own community.
Marie Blankley, CPA is the mayor of Gilroy.