Council says, "Speak now. . . ."

While there have not been any Malibu trains to keep running on time since the 1920s, Mayor Walt Keller is doing his level best to make sure the City Council meetings will.

Last week, the recently re-ensconced mayor beat back an effort by Councilmembers Joan House and Harry Barovsky to remove a long-standing, but largely ignored council rule governing the public’s requests to speak at council meetings.

The rule, unenforced until now, requires that members of the public wishing to address the council on an agenda item submit their speaker request slips before the item is called for discussion by the mayor.

To keep the meetings humming along, Keller last month declared his intent as the presiding officer to strictly adhere to the rule, except, he said, in “extenuating circumstances.”

Keller did not identify what circumstances would qualify as extenuating, but generally, a tougher line will be taken on the tardy, and on those who, wary of public speaking, do not initially plan to address the council but find their courage rising as the discussion gets underway.

House said she does not think the rule is fair to people caught in traffic on their way home from work, or to those who are not seasoned council watchers.

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“There are some who might not be as informed as those of us who are here so many times,” she said.

Members of the public can still submit a late request, but whether they get an opportunity to voice their opinion will depend on the kindness of three council members who vote to suspend the rules.

While the back-from-the-dead rule may end up punishing the less-than-punctual and those not in the Toastmasters crowd, it also seems designed to deal with those pesky regulars who show up at most meetings prepared to join in most any debate.

Barovksy seemed to sense that much when he said last month that he would not want the council to have the power to turn down a late request from a person they did not want to hear from.

“We have a good idea what that person is going to say,” he observed. “So we [could] say, ‘No, we’re not going to suspend the rules tonight. To heck with him or her.’ “

On the spontaneous debate issue, Keller said he found it almost impossible to enforce the time limit rules if late requests continue to come in, because if 10 or more requests to speak are submitted, the time limit drops to two minutes per person. Those borderline cases, when nine people have submitted slips, are the most frustrating, he said last month.

“People in the audience will get a thought and run up and stick another speaker slip in,” he said. “The next thing you know, we’re on that subject for much longer than we had planned.”

Keller said that no mayor wants to be the “bad guy” in facilitating meetings, and he urged the council to join him in his efforts to keep the meetings running on schedule. Councilman Tom Hasse, without comment, pitched in one of the votes. And Mayor Pro Tem Carolyn Van Horn, Keller’s deputy in spirit and in fact, provided the other.

Van Horn said because the rules can be suspended, the public will not suffer.

“I don’t think the rule . . . is going to diminish public access [or] public comment,” she said.

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