I read with keen interest your column “Political Gumbo: Random Notes from Monday’s City Council Meeting.” I offer the following response based on my notes after listening to most of the October 4th meeting and all of the discussion and public comments concerning the Pasadena Police Department’s request to enter the ShotSpotter contract.
First, you express the view that those who opposed the ShotSpotter contract should have made the more reasoned argument over the surveillance impacts of the ShotSpotter gunfire detection system, i.e., the privacy issue. Actually, some speakers made live comments and submitted correspondence raising that issue as well as other issues, including potential harm to the community from use of this technology. Additionally, in my opinion, raising solely the privacy issue would not have been a good strategy. Are there four members on our Council who would even consider rejecting PPD’s request to enter the ShotSpotter contract solely on the basis of its potential for invading the privacy rights of those persons who will be affected? I count one, maybe two; certainly not four.
Second, you take issue with the fact that many callers asserted that the $640,000 contract should be rejected because the ShotSpotter gunfire detection system doesn’t work. Community members should be able to rely on our paid staff members to present balanced, objective reports and presentations to City Council on agenda items, with well-sourced facts and a discussion of the pros and cons. Unfortunately, the PPD’s staff report and presentation to the City Council on the ShotSpotter agenda item were not. Community members therefore needed to present critical information missing from the staff presentation. Staff received about 30 minutes to present information supporting a contract with ShotSpotter (not including the Council’s question-and-answer period). Community members received only 2 minutes each to present facts challenging the wisdom of our City in spending money on an expensive tool of questionable value.
Finally, you mention a court decision supporting the ability of local government officials to restrict public comments at City Council meetings to three minutes each, or even less. While that may be true, is it fair or wise to do so? On the ShotSpotter item, the public comments and correspondence were necessary to fill in critical information missing from the staff presentation. Unfortunately, we do not even know if all City Council members heard that information because most of the City Council members who attended virtually had their cameras turned off during the public comment period and two of the members attending in chambers were talking to others in the room as critical information was delivered.
On the fairness aspect of a three-minute-or-less rule, when Mayor Gordo was campaigning for Mayor he said “too many Pasadenans believe they are unheard at the top of City Hall. As Mayor, I pledge to listen to all of Pasadena’s residents. . . .” (https://www.victorgordoformayor.com/why-i-m-running.) He also said “[t]he most important responsibility for me as an elected official is the willingness to listen to all vantage points, to be willing to stand before anyone who has a concern, who wants to talk.” (https://www.pasadenanow.com/main/mayoral-candidate-victor-gordo-talks-about-development-transparency-social-justice-and-consensus-building/.) Community members are entitled to hold elected officials to their campaign promises.
Like you, I do not make the rules for presenting community concerns at our City Council meetings. But I hope we can all agree that community members should receive a fair opportunity to express their views and should receive the courtesy and respect of seeing that City Council members are listening to, and actually considering, those views.
Sonja K. Berndt
Retired State Prosecutor
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