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Belvedere council pushes public comments to end of its hearings

The Belvedere City Council will move the open public-comment period from the beginning of its meetings to the end, a change that officials say is about efficiency but may serve to discourage some residents from speaking at all.

Despite assertions otherwise by city officials, the policy change approved 4-0 by the council Dec. 12 makes Belvedere the only municipal government in Marin to hold its open time at the end of meetings. The council convenes just once a month, for 2½ hours on average in 2022, with several meetings stretching beyond the three-hour mark and approaching 10 p.m.

The change was part of a package of policies officials assert will make meetings more efficient and remove outdated practices, such as adopting a set of simplified parliamentary rules of order widely used in California. But the only structural change was to move open time to the end.

Open time is legally required under California sunshine laws to allow citizens to address their government representatives on any matter of local relevance that isn’t otherwise on the board’s agenda, though state law doesn’t specify when that needs to occur. It’s typically held at or toward the beginning of meetings, where a set start time gives residents predictability, the option to depart ahead of the rest of the meeting — and potentially an audience of others waiting to speak or for later items to be heard.

For critics, the change means those who wish to speak must either sit through hours of unrelated discussion or guess when their window might open.

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