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Friday, March 04, 2005 | Don Stillwell, standing in San Diego City Council chambers in his brown three-piece suit and burly white beard, remembers the precise date he began coming to offer his opinions at council hearings: April 3, 1990.

There’s nothing special about that date, he says. But it’s written in his Bible, so he remembers it.

Bible in one hand and worn, blue duffel bag in the other, the 74-and-a-half-year-old Stillwell is one of a regular crew of amateur orators whose Tuesday morning speeches during open public comment have aroused a vibrant debate at City Hall of the importance and appropriateness of free-form public comment.

They come from all corners of the community with agendas variant in both theme and relevance. They know the drill: Public comment starts at 10 a.m. Tuesday and each person gets three minutes.

A visit to a council hearing this week offers a glimpse of how the time is used:

A rabble-rousing reverend, backed by some 40 supporters, demanded the council hold hearings on the wages of its lowest-income employees. A man with a bullhorn in his grip petitioned the city to investigate what he alleges was President Bush’s authorization of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Another belittles the council for its “moral bankruptcy.” One comments on the city pension problems and labor negotiations; another virulently defends the council in light of the recent City Hall investigations.

For his part, Stillwell, who speaks and looks like a folksy country pastor, has a two-part agenda. He always speaks of the importance of prayer at council, and at times urges the members to take a closer look at the federal government’s levying of the income tax, which he believes technically only applies to federal workers and residents of Washington, D.C.

Legally, council must hear it sometime

It is one of a raft of issues ongoing at City Hall that in normal, scandal-free times might otherwise ride the headlines rather than be trampled by them.

The council originally voted Feb. 8 to move the comments to the end of the Tuesday meetings – whenever that maybe. It would’ve essentially killed non-agenda public comment, forcing the verbose commentators to sit through meetings uncertain if their chance would come in one hour or five. But public outcry forced the council to mend that move this week. The current proposal gives the mayor discretion to give three minutes each to five speakers at the start of Tuesday council meeting; the rest would be pushed to the end. Pending council ratification in the next 30-to-45 days, the old rules continue.

Mayor Dick Murphy says the often free wheeling speeches force others at the council for specific matters to unnecessarily wait, uncertain to when they will be called upon. Opponents say it is a not-so-subtle suppression of free speech.

Councilman Ralph Inzunza called listening to the public comment the “silliest part of his job.” Councilwoman Donna Frye has accused her colleagues of acting out of disdain for the public.

How open public comment is used varies, as it did this specific Tuesday. Some, like Rev. Robert Ard, use the public comment to force action on critical issues facing the city by bringing in a crowd of sticker-wearing supporters to demonstrate the urgency.

“Our coffers may be low, but we can show that we are rich in compassion,” he said in a passionate speech on the living wage proposal, which would boost pay for the city’s lowest paid workers. Murphy promised to put the issue on the council calendar and several council members voiced their support after his speech.

After him, a group working to stop the gang violence explained its successful program to the council weeks before a council committee is to explore ways to halt the city’s gang problem.

The regulars

During most speeches, council members sit blank faced. Scott Peters, who initiated the review of the public’s right-to-know rules, drinks a tall Starbucks and looks into his laptop computer. Ralph Inzunza, if present, chats on the phone or with a colleague. Murphy, when the words get heated, tries to hide his frustration.

Rev. James Gilbert of Fairmont Baptist Church in City Heights comes to open public comment about four times a year to speak on any number of issues, but his busy schedule won’t allow him to if changes are made.

“I just can’t sit around and wait to see when the council ends,” Gilbert said.

The public comment time has also spawned a couple of loquacious orators, Jarvis Ross and Al Strohlein, known for their witty, researched and sharp-tongued orations.

And for at least one member of the City Hall press corps, open public comment is the highlight of an oftentimes mundane and lengthy Tuesday.

The public or the Peruvian Navy

The council spent at least the first 10 minutes of the meeting listening to an attaché from the Peruvian Navy, and watched on as Murphy and the naval guests exchanged books and posed for photographs.

Opponents of the changes to the public comment say there are many things the council could do if it wanted to shave extra time from its Tuesdays, like starting on time, cutting the lunch break down from two hours or moving council comment to the end of the meeting as well. These opponents include Council members Toni Atkins, Tony Young and Frye, who have voted against all measures changing the current structure.

Additionally, the unpredictability of discussion, debate and numerous motions related to the laundry list of items the council votes on each day seem to contribute more to the timing problems at council hearings than the public comment.

Murphy supported moving the comment to a time-certain 4 p.m. start, or at the end of council meeting, which ever came first. The motion was to allow the speakers to schedule their days; the council voted this compromise down.

Other council members say it’s just unfair to other members of the public to have to sit through the often-off topic comments from the crew of commentators.

Even Daniel Coffey, seemingly the only pro-mayor and council gadfly walking the City Hall corridors these days, said that despite the ugliness of some speech, “you’ve got to put up with us folk out here.”

The open public comment has gone through many mutations throughout the years. When first instituted as an amendment to the Brown Act in 1987, each speaker was given one minute, and a maximum of five minutes of public comment were allowed. It was held at the end of council meetings.

In 1991, under Mayor Maureen O’Connor, the council voted to move public comment to the start of council meetings and extended it to three minutes per speaker. An effort in 1998 to move it to the end of council failed, though Mayor Susan Golding did shrink speaker time down to two minutes. Murphy bumped it back to three minutes when he took office.

As for retired Stillwell, who as a former NASA employee is one of the few he believes should be paying income tax, he’ll be downtown speaking every Tuesday no matter what hour the public comment falls.

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