San Joaquin Board of Supervisors Limits Comments to 100 Words

Apr 22, 2021
typewriter that says 'freedom of speech'

By Jasmin Prasad
On Friday, March 19th, Chairman Tom Patti solely made the decision to limit public comments
to 100 written words at the San Joaquin Board of Supervisors Meetings.
In a day and age where civic discourse seems to primarily take place on Twitter and Tiktok, it is
critical that we still engage in meaningful conversation where decisions that affect our
community are being made.
This very meaningful discussion was hindered after Patti’s decision was made. Since then, there
was a 5-0 board chamber vote to return the 250 word limit on public comment.
However, the limiting public comment highlights a very alarming trend in censorship at the local
government level.
To understand the severity of the aforementioned issue, it is important to know what exactly a
“public comment” is.
Supervisor Kathy Miller, our District 2 San Joaquin County Supervisor, notes that the San
Joaquin Board of Supervisors is “a public agency… a local government… and as such, the public
has a right to bring their concerns to elected representatives at all levels of government.”
As per this right given to use by the constitution, Miller makes the point that there are a couple
mechanisms through which to make public comment. The first being general comments.
“You could provide a public comment to the board of supervisors and say ‘I just bought my first
house and got my first property tax bill. I think taxes are too high in this country,’” says Miller.
If the comment is not on the agenda, no action will be taken -- though it is still critical to
recognize the rights we have to make these comments.
There are then comments that pertain to the agenda of the board meeting. As Miller mentions,
“when those comments depend on things you’re gonna take action on that day, it is legally
important that you listen to those comments before you vote on them.” If a community members’
comments are about a subject that will be discussed during that board meeting, they will usually
be read at the beginning of the meeting. However, this isn’t always necessarily the case.

“The other one is if you want to move the comments to the end of the meeting. I don’t believe
that’s good government, but legally you can do that,” says Miller.
Clearly, 100 words is insufficient for elaboration or proper depth of discussion on all of the
aforementioned comments. This begs the question: what is the motivation for such a superfluous
Professor Teresa Bergman, the chair of the Communications department at Pacific, mentioned
that when public bodies with elected representatives limit public feedback, it is because
something controversial is going on.
Ultimately, controversy is something unavoidable in political processes -- this is something that
we have learned in the last 4 years. What is critical however, is that there exists a means through
which to hold our leaders accountable.
“I was on the Stockton City Council during bankruptcy. I had to cast votes that I knew we had to
because of our finances… people did not like them,” says Miller.
Miller warrants that in making these controversial decisions, leaders must be prepared to listen to
people and respond to them; to let the people know why distinct votes were cast.
Bergman also indicates that there can be a range of other motivations. “Maybe there is too much
feedback and they feel that they want to move forward. The downside is that they want to be
heard and be a part of the process.”
It is even more critical to have these meaningful discussions concerning Stockton politics.
“Stockton has a really interesting recent history, voting out this really progressive mayor who
had started up basic income,” notes Bergman. There are significant issues with homeless and
poverty -- topics that Bergman emphasizes we must take on with a full embrace and be humane.
Shutting down channels of feedback and communication is not a proper means to affect change.
Miller speaks of yet another instance of this occurring. “If you see what is happening at the
Stockton Unified School District right now, there is a very clear effort to restrict the public’s
ability to be heard in advance of votes and to hold their elected officials accountable for those
votes.” A clear example of inappropriate governing.
The significance of keeping these communication channels is stated best by Bergman. “Limiting
feedback doesn’t bode well for a functioning democracy… this kind of bureaucratic response is
problematic and anti-democratic.”

*For anyone who would like to make Public Comment at the Board of Supervisors Meetings, the
board meets on Tuesdays biweekly (every other Tuesday) at 9 A.M.