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Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
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LA City Hall reopens to public after two years, with little fanfare

Just 40 people showed up to offer public comment, and only one of them was kicked out.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Covid lockdown — when bars, restaurants, even parks and beaches were closed — is a distant memory in Los Angeles. By the start of the year, only one sector of public life remained shut down: government buildings. Meetings of the City Council, Board of Supervisors, Police Commission, Board of Education, and a myriad of other commissions were held remotely, over Zoom. Public comment, long a fixture of California government, in which Angelenos get a couple of minutes to sound off on agenda items, was held over the phone.

At City Council meetings, that new convenience brought with it a steady stream of callers phoning in to berate council members over their response to the pandemic, the homelessness crisis and myriad other issues. Some callers would scream obscenities. Some would lecture the council on the intricacies of public meeting law. Some would spread disinformation about vaccines.

On Wednesday, LA City Hall — an iconic 32-story landmark built in 1928 — finally reopened to the public after more than two years. That meant a return to in-person public comment. Before the meeting, City Hall staffers braced themselves. No one knew what to expect. Some reporters — this one included — expected a circus-like atmosphere.

Much of LA politics has been subject to disruption over the past two years. A number of mayoral debates have been interrupted by left-wing protesters. One debate even had to end early. On Sunday, Black Lives Matter co-founder Melina Abdullah was removed from a debate on the California State University, LA, campus, where she teaches, before the debate even started.

But the council meeting Wednesday morning was a surprisingly tepid affair. Only around 40 members of the public showed up, including four kids, a baby and a lobbyist, lurking silently in the back of chambers. In fact, the meeting started 25 minutes late because there weren't enough council members for a quorum.

When the meeting finally did begin, it did so with Council President Nury Martinez reading the audience the riot act.

"I want to make something very clear on how I run this council meeting" she told the small crowd sternly, calling to mind a Sunday school teacher. "The yelling, the calling names, the derogatory language and causing disruptions will not be tolerated. And quite frankly, shutting down this meeting only hurts the people we’re trying to serve."

She added: "Let’s be clear: any activity that exceeds the Brown Act-protected participation or acceptable free speech, and any activity that violates the rules of decorum is subject to a warning and an ejection by the sergeant at arms when I ask for them."

Some in the audience, like longtime activist Miki Jackson, thought it was an odd note to start out on. "Don’t start out by antagonizing people," she said afterward.

Martinez's threat was only put to the test once, by Ricci Sergienko, an outspoken organizer for the People's City Council. After using his allotted three minutes of public comment to try to serve Councilman Paul Koretz with a lawsuit filed last week by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition — Koretz refused to take the papers — Sergienko began shouting at Councilman Joe Buscaino, a mayoral candidate who's built a platform around clearing the city's many homeless encampments, by force if necessary. Buscaino's campaign appears to be floundering, his message effectively subsumed by billionaire developer Rick Caruso, who's spent $22 million of his own money so far.

"One percent Joe!" Sergienko shouted, as Buscanio flashed him a downward facing thumb. "Been running for a year, polling at 1%! Talking like a tough guy! One percent Joe!"

Martinez ordered Sergienko removed, and that was that. The outburst was a tame one, by the City Council's standards.

In recent months, the city's political temperature could be taken by the stickers pasted on lampposts near City Hall. For a while, these promoted anti-vaccine messages: a picture of Anthony Fauci with the words, "Wanted for Crimes Against Humanity," a drawing of a spider with syringes for legs, looming over a clueless infant, with the words, "Big Pharma." By Wednesday, the anti-vax messages had made way for pro-choice ones. A sign read, "Abolish the Sup. Court: Enemy of Women!" Another showed a drawing of a uterus with the words, "Try me bitch."

Neither issue came up during the meeting. Housing did. Most of the public commenters wanted to speak about an apartment building they said is in a deplorable state — infested with rats and spewing out "black water." Another group of tenants protesting conditions in their building attempted to speak with Councilman Gil Cedillo after the meeting. They were refused entrance to his office and were removed from City Hall by law enforcement.

Much like office workers who grew accustomed to working from home during the pandemic, activists lamented the return to in-person-only public comment. Most of the commenters asked the council to bring back phone-in public comment as an option. They said it can be hard for people in wheelchairs, people who are pregnant, those who ride the bus and people who work 9-5 jobs to make it to City Hall on a weekday morning.

"It’s really troubling that, accessibility-wise, people can’t call in and give public comment anymore," said Adam Smith, an activist who brought his two children to the meeting.

Jackson agreed, saying in her public comment, "It’s a very large city. People have a hard time getting here."

The argument made little impression on any of the council members. In a written statement sent after the meeting, Martinez's spokesperson Sophie Gilchrist, said: "We are returning to the way meetings and public comment were conducted prior to the pandemic, including the option to fill out the public comment form online if you are not able to attend." Those online comments are entered into the council file, but not read aloud during the meeting.

The meeting lasted about an hour and ended without incident. The council voted unanimously on 28 items, without discussion or dissent from the 14 council members present.

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Categories / Government, Politics, Regional

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