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By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian
BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Hot under the collar about high-speed rail? Perplexed about the proposed Human Life Ordinance? Better think fast.
At Wednesday's meeting of the Bakersfield City Council, Mayor Harvey Hall warned the 16 people there to speak during public comment that they would be limited to 15 minutes per issue -- instead of the previous time limit of 15 minutes for each side of a issue.
"Where we have four to five people on one topic, I want you to make sure you make your statements quickly so that all can speak," Hall said.
His directive was not well-received by LifeSavers Ministries Administrator Tim Palmquist, creator of the proposed Human Life Ordinance, who characterized the change to the public comment period as "strange."
"Especially when we had more people on our side tonight, and that's when they decided to do this," said Palmquist, who spoke for the ordinance for more than three minutes Wednesday night and was escorted from the podium to outside the chambers by a Bakersfield police officer because he did not heed the mayor's order to stop speaking. "It's just obviously not equal treatment."
The section of Bakersfield Municipal Code on city council meetings does not limit speakers to 15 minutes per issue.
Section 2.04.100 of the municipal code, titled Public Statements, reads in part: "Comments by the public during the public statements portion of the agenda are limited to three minutes for each person, with a total of 15 minutes in favor of any one subject and a total of 15 minutes in opposition of any one subject."
But City Attorney Ginny Gennaro said she believes that section of code applies only to items actually on the council agenda -- not to subjects raised during public comment by members of the public.
"As city attorney, my interpretation of that is, that last sentence there is for items that are really agendized, where one has a side for, and one has a side against," Gennaro said. "The code doesn't address where you have something that is un-agendized."
Attorney Michael Jenkins, chairman of the League of California Cities Brown Act Committee, said the state's open meetings law is silent on public comment requirements.
"The Brown Act does not have any provision indicating how much time has to be allotted to items not on the agenda," Jenkins said of the state's open meetings law. "The Brown Act really only talks about how to deal with items on the agenda."
The Kern County Board of Supervisors limits public comment speakers to two minutes each.
Kern County Democratic Party Chairwoman Candi Easter said the city council has to allow for free speech while leaving itself time to conduct city business in public.
"I think 15 minutes pro and 15 minutes con is probably a better plan, but I don't think people should be allowed to speak for three to four minutes," Easter said.
Hall did not respond to requests for comment, but Ward 2 Councilman Terry Maxwell said the proposed Human Life Ordinance, which would have restricted abortion in Bakersfield, may have sparked a rise in public comment.
"I think it's the subject du jour. Six months from now, there will be something else we'll be talking about, and no one will remember what this is," said Maxwell, who thinks Hall's remark will "force everybody to be concise."
The ordinance was considered in May by Bakersfield City Council's Legislative and Litigation Committee, which voted to table it indefinitely, and ordered the drafting of a less-restrictive resolution on the same topic. The committee will consider the issue again at its Sept. 23 meeting.