A&A: Sign-in cards for public comment

cards for public comment

Q: I have been asking my local school district board to provide for public comments during the school board meetings.  Previously attendees had to fill out a speaker card, give it to the superintendent.  Their question would be answered within three days at which time they would receive a phone call from the district.  The board finally aquiessed to my requests and threats to sue.  However, the change, I believe, is in violation.  The board reads the standard paragraph before the meeting regarding public comments etc…  But on the agenda there is no period for public comment for those things not on the agenda.  The board does not open the meeting up for public comment at all nor do they ask for public comment on agendized items.  If someone wants to speak on an item, they must fill out a specially created “blue” card with their name, address, and what topic they want to speak on.  If you do not fill out a card the board will not recognize you to speak as they don’t know you want to speak.

My question, yes I finally arrived to it, are sign in cards to speak a violation and because the board does not allow public comment on each individual agendized item are they in violation of the Brown Act?

A: As you know, the Brown Act provides that “[e]very agenda for regular meetings shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body on any item of interest to the public, before or during the legislative body’s consideration of the item, that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body . . ..”  Cal. Govt. Code Section 54954.3(a).  The Brown Act also provides that “[t]he legislative body of a local agency may adopt reasonable regulations to ensure that the intent of subdivision (a) is carried out, including, but not limited to, regulations limiting the total amount of time allocated for public testimony on particular issues and for each individual speaker.”  Govt. Code Section 54954.3(b).

It may be that the comment-card system was adopted as a means of ensuring that people who want to comment have the opportunity to do so.  If the request-to-comment cards require the individual to list his or her name, this requirement might run afoul of Section 54953.3 of the Brown Act, which provides that:

“[a] member of the public shall not be required, as a condition to attendance at a meeting of a legislative body . . . to register his or her name, to provide other information, to complete a questionnaire, or otherwise to fulfill any condition precedent to his or her attendance.  If an attendance list, register, questionnaire, or other similar document is posted at or near the entrance to the room where the meeting is to be held, or is circulated to the persons present . . . it shall state clearly that the signing, registering, or completion of the document is voluntary, and that all persons may attend the meeting regardless of whether a person signs, registers, or completes the document.”

Although this section states that giving information can’t be a prerequisite to attending a meeting (versus commenting at a meeting), it seems reasonable that such information should also not be a prerequisite for commenting at a meeting.  We are not aware, however, of any authority applying Section 54953.3 to the right to comment.

As for the second part of your question, the Brown Act’s provision that members of the public can comment “on any item of interest to the public, before or during the legislative body’s consideration of the item” suggests that comment should be allowed before or during each individual item.  Conceivably, a single comment period at the beginning of the meeting could satisfy the letter of the law, but the Act seems to have been interpreted to provide for comment on each item. See, e.g., Chafee v. San Francisco Library Commission, 115 Cal. App. 4th 461, 469 (2004) (Brown Act and S.F. Sunshine Ordinance “mandated that a single general public comment period be provided be provided per agenda, in addition to public comment on each agenda item as it is taken up by the body”).