11233258-largeThe California Senate is poised, as early as this coming Monday, to vote on a bill that would end abuses and denials of citizens’ right to be heard at local government meetings.

AB 194 by Assembly Member Nora Campos (D-San Jose) leaves councils, boards and commissions their Brown Act discretion to adopt and enforce reasonable regulations such as time limits and procedures for public comment on agenda items. But it prohibits the following practices used by too many local bodies to frustrate informed and timely comment:

• Barring criticism of how the body’s officers or employees do their jobs. As the law now stands, general complaints about the agency must be permitted, but some agencies have taken the position that the performance of agency staff, including chief executives, is off limits for public criticism. This view has been rejected by two federal courts upholding the First Amendment, and needs to be foreclosed in the Brown Act itself.

• Denying citizens the chance to comment on an agenda item during its presentation if they have not earlier signed up to do so. This practice can arise in one or both of two ways: forcing people to speak their peace on an agenda item at the beginning of the meeting, before its presentation by staff makes its need, cost and impact apparent; and refusing to allow comment by those who have not filled out a “speaker card” at the beginning of the meeting. This barrier actually gives cautious watchdogs the motivation to sign up to address every agenda item, in case the staff presentation raises an unforeseen issue.

• Denying, limiting or burdening public comment based on disapproval of the speaker’s viewpoint. Viewpoint discrimination has been repeatedly and uniformly held to violate the First Amendment by all courts addressing the issue, yet one continues to hear of local agency officials who don’t seem to have heard of this core free speech principle.

• Reducing a speaker’s two or three minute time allowance by officials’ repeated interruptions to challenge or question his or her statements, or deducting from the speaker’s time limit the time its takes to translate his or her statements into English. The latter practice is also made unlawful by AB ____ by Assembly Member John Perez, also awaiting Senate approval.

AB 194 is opposed by the state’s 13 largest county governments, by Los Angeles County in particular, and by the cities of Orange County, all of which seriously misrepresent the bill’s impact by maintaining that it will strip the body’s power to limit public comment by allowing all speakers who have not signed up to comment on a matter to do so nonetheless when it is taken up. This ignores the overall rule, present in the Brown Act for decades and preserved in AB 194, giving the local body the authority to adopt and enforce “regulations limiting the total amount of time allocated for public testimony on particular issues and for each individual speaker.”

In other words, if the body has set a standing 15-minute limit for comments on individual agenda items, those who have signed up in advance to comment on an item may be numerous enough to exhaust that fixed period—first come, first served is still a permitted protocol. If the pre-registered speakers are not that many, the time left available is open to comment by those who did not sign up. But those running the meeting are still fully in charge of their time budget.

AB 194 is supported by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and Californians Aware.

Let your Senator know if you think this bill is important.