Led by Mayor Cathy Murillo, the Santa Barbara City Council voted 4-3 on Tuesday to stop members of the public from sharing public comment time at the beginning of meetings.
People are allowed to extend their two minutes of speaking time by asking other members of the public to fill out slips and give their two minutes of time to them, for up to 10 minutes.
As a practical matter, the only person who regularly pools time is Anna Marie Gott, a harsh critic of the mayor, most council members and city staff on a variety of issues, such as housing, vacation rentals and public parking.
Murillo and councilmen Eric Friedman, Randy Rowse and Gregg Hart — all of whom have been criticized in public meetings by Gott — voted to eliminate shared speaking time.
Council members Oscar Gutierrez, Kristen Sneddon and Jason Dominguez voted against the change.
“I just want to emphasize that at this point in our nation, it is kind of disconcerting to hear that we are trying to decide whether or not we should limit people’s ability to speak freely,” Gutierrez said. “I just want you all to think about that.”
Sneddon said public comment was her favorite part of the meeting, and that she was “not interested in limiting” people’s speaking time because “public comment truly is democracy in action.”
The idea of eliminating shared time first came up during the council’s controversial retreat at a conference room 11 miles away near the Santa Barbara airport. The council members expressed concern that individuals were dominating public comment time.
Dominguez, who also feuds with the mayor over policy issues, said it was clear what is driving the change.
“You don’t want people pooling, and there’s one person who pools regularly at the City Council,” Dominguez said.
Even City Attorney Ariel Calonne mentioned Gott by name twice, as an example of someone who pools time, during his formal presentation.
Murillo said she was not retaliating against Ms. Gott, a comment that was met with laughter from the audience.
“I can positively say it is not about any one individual,” Murillo said. “I agree with Ms. Gott half the time.”
Gott said she felt the council was creating policy simply to counteract her public comments.
There are people who are too afraid to speak in public, she said, but they allocate their time to her so that she can speak for them.
Gott is also a member of the Allied Neighborhood Association and sometimes speaks on behalf of that organization.
“It is disrespectful to treat anyone who wants to participate in government this way,” Gott said. “I have a right to speak, and the people who can’t be here have the right to have someone speak on their behalf.”
As part of its decision to eliminate shared speaking time, at Friedman’s request, the council increased public comment time at the beginning of the meeting from 2 to 3 minutes maximum.
For items on the City Council agenda, the council also slashed shared speaking time to five minutes maximum.
Friedman said that he studied the city of Goleta, Santa Barbara County, and other jurisdictions, and they all allow three minutes of time, but do not allowed pooled or shared time.
“I am going to ask that we increase just the base on the general and public participation to three minutes,” Friedman said. “If you are not an insider and you don’t come every week and you don’t know that, you should have three minutes to speak before us.”
In a separate action, the council voted unanimously to require private attorneys who meet with City Council members to fill out a form stating that the did so, so the public and city attorney would have a record of the meeting.