A&A: Public comment limited to three items on Water Quality Board agenda

Q: A draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit was submitted for comments. A final permit ignored most comments, but made three small changes. The first and only public hearing is coming up , but the agenda states that oral comments will be limited to the three changes. Thus, no important points can be made to the Regional Water Quality Board members at the public hearing. Can they so tightly constrain what the board hears from the public?

A: California’s Brown Act provides that, subject to certain “reasonable regulations,” meetings of legislative bodies of local agencies must 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 Gov Code § 54954.3.

But the provision goes on to say that
“the agenda need not provide an opportunity for members of the public to address the legislative body on any item that has already been considered by a committee, composed exclusively of members of the legislative body, at a public meeting wherein all interested members of the public were afforded the opportunity to address the committee on the item, before or during the committee’s consideration of the item, unless the item has been substantially changed since the committee heard the item, as determined by the legislative body.” Id.

It may be that the board took the position that the three minor changes you refer to below were the only items that had not already been considered at a meeting where members of the public had been allowed to comment. While the spirit of open meetings and public access to government deliberation may have been better served by allowing the public to comment on the permit as a whole, if the criteria set forth in § 54954.3 for items that have already been open to comment were met, then the board may have been within the law in limiting comments to the changes.