Speak Up, Benicia: How to Defend Public Participation before Tuesday, May 7

[Note from BenIndy: For information on how to register your support or opposition to the changes described below, scroll to the end.]

BenIndy Editorial, Thursday, May 2, 2024

This Tuesday, May 7, at 6 pm, Benicia City Council will vote on revisions to the city’s campaign ordinances and public engagement policies that were proposed by council and city staff in late 2023.

While community members have supported some of the proposed changes, especially those that tighten loopholes in fair political practices, other proposed revisions – including some from city staff– have faced criticism for their potential to limit meaningful public engagement in governance.

Now, Benicia residents are calling on the community to write, call and show up to oppose to two revisions proposed by staff but not supported by Benicia’s Open Government Commission (OGC):

    • Amend the City’s Municipal Code to align with state law pertaining to the time to respond to public records act request; and
    • Decrease the amount of time public speakers may address a City public body in open session from 5 minutes to 3 minutes.

City Council requested Open Government Commission review in late 2023

Benicia’s Open Government Commission was created in 2005 to enhance openness, accountability, and public participation in local government after community complaints and external investigations exposed deficiencies in those areas. At the time, the charges laid against City Council included unreasonable delays or outright refusal to provide public records upon request, failures to appropriately notice the public on meeting content and scheduling, agenda misinformation, and more. By establishing the ordinance, the city sought to foster a stronger connection between government officials and residents, promoting a more informed and engaged community. 

Prompted by growing concerns about fairness, false statements and digital image manipulation in local elections, City Council tasked the OGC in late 2023 to review and develop recommendations for providing Benicia’s political landscape with guardrails to defend against such misleading tactics. The OGC was also charged to consider several changes proposed by city staff, including updating public records requests and public comment policies to reduce strain on staff.

Some changes to fair political practices code in Benicia elections

After deliberations were stalled several months by quorum and staffing issues, the OGC opted to introduce a few of its recommendations through suggested updates to Benicia’s Voluntary Code of Fair Campaign Practices. 

The OGC’s first recommendation to address false and manipulated media via the Voluntary Code would simply align Benicia with California state law, and not much more, but the impulse was welcomed by some city residents.

However, the OGC did not address important questions about enforcement functionality or meaningful remedy for violations, instead punting the responsibility back to the City Clerk, who could immediately inform any candidate and/or political action committee (PAC) about complaints and post said complaint(s) and any rebuttal(s) on the City’s website. 

An example of a 2020 campaign ad that some residents claim includes digitally manipulated images and misleading statements.

Additionally, although the OGC discussed how to make campaign regulations in Benicia more “objective” and enforceable, the commission asserted that the complexity of navigating First Amendment privileges or procuring third-party fact-checking services was beyond its scope.

Finally, the OGC considered whether to maintain or discontinue its mandated Candidate Forum before local elections, ultimately voting to keep the forum but adjusting which day it may fall on during the week.

Concerns about public access to information

Benicia city staff also had an opportunity to suggest changes to Benicia’s open government regulations through the OGC’s review process. These revisions were met with more pushback from the OGC than City Council’s requests. 

To boost public participation, city staff proposed refining a rule that allows a presiding officer at public meetings to request groups with similar views to appoint a spokesperson and adjust their speaking times for efficiency. However, the OGC suggested that for items with many speakers, a presiding officer should simply encourage groups to appoint a spokesperson by referencing the relevant section of the ordinance.

Staff also requested Benicia’s deadline for response to public records requests be adjusted to the state-mandated 10-day requirement instead of the current 3-day or 5-day requirement, depending on the type of records sought.  The OGC concurred with city staff’s suggestion, recommending that the city’s response time to public records act be changed to 10 days.

However, some Benicia residents disagree with extending the deadline.

“Rapid response to public information request is essential for local democracy, because local government operates faster than county or state,” one Benicia resident pointed out. “If Benicia City Council meets twice a month and a decision is dependent on a public records request, responsive documents should be available to the public as quickly as possible so decision makers can meet important deadlines, if necessary. Ten days doesn’t allow for that.”

Public speaking time under threat, confusion about recommendations

Perhaps most controversially, city staff has pushed for a reduction in public comment speaking time at meetings from 5 minutes to 3, claiming it would make meetings more efficient and likely increase public participation. The OGC declined to recommend city staff’s proposed speaking time reduction, citing public pushback and no compelling evidence that shorter speaking times could improve meeting outcomes. 

“Cutting the public’s time to be heard by a whopping 40%, especially without any data backing that decision, is a bad look,” one resident said, commending the OGC for not recommending the cutback. “Benicia should consider itself lucky to have engaged citizens, not be looking for ways to get them to pipe down.”

But despite the OGC explicitly declining to change the speaking time limits, the recommendation from city staff still appears in the City Council meeting packet for May 7 under the headline, “OPEN GOVERNMENT COMMISSION’S RECOMMENDATIONS TO COUNCIL (City Attorney’s Office),” causing confusion about which recommendations are coming from city staff and which are coming from the OGC, causing opponents to the change to cry foul.

Residents complained that the relevant agenda item, titled “OPEN GOVERNMENT COMMISSION’S RECOMMENDATIONS TO COUNCIL,” does not clearly and explicitly indicate which recommendations are from staff and which are not in the final presentation of proposed revisions

“It needs to be clearer,” a resident said. “The way it is written, it is very unclear who is recommending what, and why, and I find that very troubling in an already very complicated discussion about open government.”

Benicia resident Mike Caplan announced the opening of the Benicia Farmer’s Market at the April 16 City Council meeting, leaving the podium after speaking for 40 seconds. Some Benicia residents say the city would be wrong to limit speaking time, especially when most speakers don’t use the full 5 minutes. | Still from April 16, 2024 Benicia City meeting recording.

Open government norms in review

Although the OGC’s proposed revisions to Benicia’s Voluntary Code of Fair Campaign Practices are fine and welcome, the commission fell short of not just devising, but also envisioning a better system to fend off repeat offenders who use misleading or otherwise unfair campaign tactics to exercise outsized influence in our small town elections. Some cities work with their open government commissions to produce mailers and email blasts warning voters of deceptive campaign practices, for just one example of an effective city commission–led response to unfair campaign practices.

Meanwhile, City Council’s decisions on these recommendations this Tuesday will be another signal of how City Council will balance which burdens on city staff are necessary for open, local governance, and which can be dropped to save resources. What shakes out of this meeting will, in essence, show us how City Council will weigh the necessity of economy (Benicia is, after all, experiencing a budget crisis) against the necessity of providing services, including meaningful public participation opportunities, to its community. 

This meeting therefore merits careful watching, and perhaps active participation, on the part of Benicia citizens. More information about how to support or oppose these changes is below.

Call to action

The full list of what appear to be staff recommendations under the OGC banner is below and available here:

This document is titled “OPEN GOVERNMENT COMMISSION’S RECOMMENDATIONS TO COUNCIL,” but several of the recommendations in this list do not reflect OGC direction.  | From page 9 of the City of Benicia Full Agenda Packet for May 7 meeting.

Benicia activists are asking the community to call, write or show up on Tuesday to oppose changes to:

(2) Amend the City’s Municipal Code to align with state law pertaining to the time to respond to public records act request; and
(3) Decrease the amount of time public speakers may address a City public body in open session form 5 minutes to 3 minutes.

If you care about public participation in Benicia one way or the other, there are several ways to get involved, and most of them are quick and easy. Learn more below.

How to write and email a public comment

If you would like to make your opinion on the topic of the proposed revisions known to City Council, members of the public may provide public comment via email to the City Clerk by email at lwolfe@ci.benicia.ca.us. Any comment submitted to the City Clerk should indicate to which item of the agenda the comment relates. (THE PROPOSED REVISIONS ARE IN AGENDA ITEM 22.C – OPEN GOVERNMENT COMMISSION’S RECOMMENDATIONS TO COUNCIL (City Attorney’s Office).)

– Comments received by 2:00 pm on the day of the meeting will be electronically forwarded to the City Council and posted on the City’s website.

– Comments received after 2:00 pm, but before the start time of the meeting will be electronically forwarded to the City Council but will not be posted on the City’s website.

In your email, put the item number in your subject line (e.g., “Public comment re. Item 22.C”).

In your email body, share why you support or oppose the changes.

How to view the meeting and/or make a live public comment

You can participate in the meeting in one of four ways: 

1) Attend in person at Council Chambers
2) Cable T.V. Broadcast – Check with your cable provider for your local government broadcast channel.
3) Livestream online at www.ci.benicia.ca.us/agendas
4) Zoom Meeting (link below)

The public may view and participate (via computer or phone) link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88508047557?pwd=cHRsZlBrYlphU3pkODcycytmcFR2UT09
  • If prompted for a password, enter 449303.
  • Use participant option to “raise hand” during the public comment period for the item you wish to speak on. Please note, your electronic device must have microphone capability. Once unmuted, you will have up to 5 minutes to speak.
  • Dial in with phone:
    Before the start of the item you wish to comment on, call any of the numbers below. If one is busy, try the next one.

        • 1 669 900 9128
        • 1 346 248 7799
        • 1 253 215 8782
        • 1 646 558 8656
        • 1 301 715 8592
        • 1 312 626 6799

•  Enter the meeting ID number: 885 0804 7557 (*please note this is an updated ID number*.)

Say the item you wish to speak on. (AGAIN, THE PROPOSED CHANGES ARE IN ITEM 22.C.)

Once unmuted, you will have up to 5 minutes to speak.

Enter password: 449303

When prompted for a Participant ID, press #.

Press *9 on your phone to “raise your hand” when the Mayor calls for public comment.

Any member of the public who needs accommodations should email City Clerk Lisa Wolfe at lwolfe@ci.benicia.ca.us, who will use her best efforts to provide as much accessibility as possible while also maintaining public safety.