Public comment and AB 339

AB 339 is an interesting bill. It would make public comment via the internet and telephone, at state and local government meetings, permanent even after the pandemic is over and the governor's executive order expires.

Public comment and civic engagement in local and state government since the pandemic started has dramatically increased. It has in some ways made some minor issues more political and caused local officials to be more performative because of the exposure each item gets. The mundane and routine business some bodies have to do has become a bit more dramatic.

But on the flip side is the sheer number of public comments has dramatically increased in local government and people are paying more attention. This ultimately is a good thing.

Before the pandemic, if you wanted to participate you had to show up at your town hall and wait in person for the item to come. You had to commit. If you are not retired or have a flexible schedule it really could interrupt your ability to get involved. Now we are seeing more younger folks get involved because the government is more accessible to them.

Now, for me, as a person with a full-time, I can hit 2 or 3 public meetings in a single day across the state. This is important when you live in an area with multiple overlapping jurisdictions and those bodies that don't always coordinate a schedule to keep you from having conflicts. I've been able to attend public meetings around the state ferry agency (WETA), Oakland Airport, and city council in a single night.

Local governments have had to adapt a bit. I don't think the Brown Act (and the similar act that covers state bodies) conceived of this situation the way it was written. It does give local bodies some flexibility but a lot is vague (intentionally). The amount of time each person can speak has decreased across in many bodies. The only move some of them can use to get through an agenda. We may need a system for constitutions to simply note in public comment if they are in support or against an item to simply log that and avoid taking time giving a long-winded opinion repeating points already made.

Sometimes public can completely off the rails too. Often people use the time to just hear themselves speak now or speak to a base when they have the microphone for a sec. I get it and there is some value to that but sometimes it's a complete waste of time. I wonder though, are you try to speak more to everyone else and have your comment heard by everyone, or are you trying to sway the body to vote in a certain direction? Before meetings were streamed, recorded, and more than just the minutes were published, it was more common for people to speak to the body rather than the public itself. Now people are speaking to the body and to the crowd. Dynamics have shifted.

Just last week there was someone that called into one meeting where I don't think he paid attention to what the item was (relating to routine budget approval), and I'm pretty sure he was high. He started talking about buying tablets for schools and wanting to go eat tacos with everyone. It was entertaining but that sort of thing prevents the body from completing an agenda. In effect, the public comment could in theory create a type of citizen filibuster.

One solution I've seen one planning board is to hold public comment for contentious issues on a different day. Essentially to pull this off they would put the item on a separate agenda, have the reading of the item and presentation, hold any clarifying questions by the body, and then suspend the agenda. Later they would schedule a meeting at an hour during the day that wasn't the normal meeting time and in that meeting, they would resume the agenda, hold public comment, let people get their say, and then suspend the agenda after it was over. Then later they would have a 3rd meeting where they would unsuspended the agenda yet again, complete the discussion on the item, make a motion, and close the item. Doing this would push all the public comments to a time where people can speak unbounded on the item and the public comments wouldn't disrupt the normal flow of the meeting. You could tell that the body members were busy doing other things while people were speaking at public comment so I'm not sure if they were fully listening to what was being said but for them it kept things moving so government could function.

I'm fully in favor of AB 339 but I very much expect that later we will have new bills to amend the Brown Act as we continue to adapt how public comment works.

Alameda Sun - Measure Z LTE

The unabridged letter to the editor that I submitted to the Alameda Sun about Measure Z:

One of the questions we require before allowing anyone to join the Alameda Peeps Facebook group is, “Do you currently live in Alameda?”.

Too many responses are of people displaced from Alameda because of high rents wanting to move back. Sometimes it’s people who work in Alameda, teachers, baristas, and city employees who can’t afford the skyrocketing rents but still feel part of this community.

I’m so grateful to own a home now, especially in Alameda. It wasn’t easy to pull that off. Still, I’ve come to realize my privilege of calling Alameda home as someone who can afford it, seeing so many that can’t.

So many of the people who work in Alameda, including many of our essential workers and first responders, can’t afford to live here—completely priced out by a scarcity of affordable options. Workers have become forced to commute long distances as housing costs rise. All while many of the people who live here commute off the island. It’s unfortunate and, in many ways, not fair.

This mismatch drives up the costs of everything in town; it hurts local businesses trying to attract talent and causes the traffic we all hate while contributing to climate change.

This path we are on is not sustainable.

Some do not think Alameda should have any additional housing. Nevertheless, the state requires cities to make available areas to build additional homes. We must do our part to deal with the housing crisis we face. Being an island does not excuse our legal or moral responsibility.

The state says how much we have to build, not the City Charter. But then the charter explicitly requires that we only build the largest, most expensive types of homes that add the most cars, hurting public transit, adding to our traffic woes. We should instead be shooting to have housing that is more affordable to a broader range of people. That required new housing could encourage less car use if built near our mass-transit corridors.

Article 26 is obsolete, and it’s holding us back from doing what is right by our community. Forty-seven years is long enough. Exclusionary zoning has no place in our city’s charter. Alamedans need housing they can afford before rising housing costs displace any more of our neighbors. That’s why I’m voting yes on Z. I hope you do too.

Learn more about Measure Z in Alameda at