Julia Orozco was more than exhausted by the time she got to Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday. But she pushed past the tiredness, because she was there to fight for her family’s future.
In her purse was a statement that she had labored over in the early morning hours. With the holidays around the corner, she had a huge order of tamales for her vending business that she had to complete, and she was only able to begin working on what she wanted to say to city council members at around 2 a.m.
Her family is saddled with $10,000 in rent debt that had accumulated over several months of slow street vending sales during the pandemic and now faces homelessness. And she is due in court in February to fight an eviction, but she fears she will not have much of a chance without a tenant attorney next to her.
But city council members never got to hear her words, nor that of many others, due to a recent change that many people in the chambers only learned about that day, and that for many felt like an effort to silence them.
The period for giving “general public comment,” which refers to comment taken on matters that aren’t on the agenda or that had been commented on in committee, was moved from the beginning of meetings to the end of them. This means that, depending on how long the meeting lasted, some people who showed up would have no chance to give their comment face-to-face with city council members if they did not stay until the end.
Many tenants who had shown up to City Hall to talk about legislation around tenant protections, including those they want city council members to take up in the future, left because they could not wait until the end of the meeting.
“They weren’t listening to what our needs were,” Orozco told Los Angeles Public Press in an interview in Spanish that was translated for the reporter by an organizer with Community Power Collective, an organization that works with street vendors like Orozco. “They are just basically doing what they thought needed to be done, and they weren’t really doing what we wanted. They only listen to us when they want to.”
Five and a half hours
The meeting started at 10 a.m. About an hour in, after the council heard some presentations, people were finally allowed to go up to a lectern facing the council members, to deliver their comment. At that point, the city council’s attorney said there has been a “slight change” to the usual public comment process that only agenda items that were “open” for public comment would be taken up at the beginning, while other comment, known as “general public comment,” would be taken at the end.
The city attorney listed out the items that people were permitted to speak about during the comment period at the beginning of the meeting. Tenants had come to City Hall as part of a push to get some of the issues on the agenda passed, including one item on a program called “Right to Counsel,” which was happening after a long effort that began in 2018 to ensure that tenants had representation in court when facing eviction. But that issue was not made available for comment, and so in order to speak on it, Orozco and others who wanted to ensure action on that would need to wait until the end of the meeting. She also wanted action on rent debt, which has not been taken up by the city council in a formal way, but is part of an effort by Orozco and others to pressure the council to author a motion on it.
“I wanted them to feel the need that we have in our time of crisis,” Orozco said. “I wanted them to feel what I’m feeling and to put themselves in my shoes. Right now there’s no money. I do not want my financial situation to be destabilized. I want them to feel committed, to listen to us.”
Under the new rules, what Orozco wanted to talk about would need to be said at the end of the meeting. Had she waited until the end of Tuesday’s meeting to give her comment, as instructed, she would have had to sit in the council chamber benches for hours. At one point the chambers were cleared so that council members could discuss numerous lawsuits and labor negotiations in private. The meeting ultimately lasted five and a half hours, long past when many people could stay. After waiting for hours, Orozco left.
Council President Paul Krekorian had first announced the change at a meeting last Tuesday, Dec. 5. At the time he explained that they were trying out a new process to prioritize people who were coming to the city council to speak on issues that were on the agenda.
“That’s the general way we’re going to proceed,” he said at that earlier meeting. “And that will likely be our continuing practice, so that we can ensure that the people who come here to talk about the items that are on our agenda have the first opportunity to speak.
Krekorian’s spokesperson, Hugh Esten, echoed this in a statement this week, saying that “it is hoped that holding general public comment until after the agenda items have been addressed will allow more members of the public to address the items currently before the Council.”
Even though the council rules say that “general public comment” usually needs to be taken at the beginning, Esten said that such a change can be made “at the discretion of the presiding officer.”
Esten said that the new rules will be in place, “until further notice.”
Council member Eunisses Hernandez, who had spoken at a news conference Tuesday morning in support of the tenant protection efforts by various groups like Community Power Collective and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (both are part of Keep LA Housed), sent back a statement to Los Angeles Public Press saying that she is hoping that “we can work together to reconsider these recent procedural changes to ensure that public comment is as accessible and impactful as possible for constituents.”
“Giving public comment at city council meetings is an essential avenue for Angelenos to interface with their local government and speak directly to their elected representatives,” Hernandez said in the statement. “Wherever possible, we should be working to increase the access that residents have to their city, particularly for folks whose voices are often under-represented in City Hall.”
By this week, the practice of moving public comment to the end of meetings had appeared to become a normal thing. Hugh Esten, a spokesperson for Krekorian, said that the new rules would be in place “until further notice.”
Some changes to council rules are voted on by the city council. The last time changes were done this way was in 2019, according to the City Clerk’s Office.
Esten also told LA Public Press that the rules around public comment can be changed “at the discretion of the presiding officer.” Past changes to council rules have been made by a vote by the city council. The most recent changes were voted on in 2018, and took effect at the start of 2019, according to the City Clerk’s Office. (The council files numbers for those changes are 16-1104, 16-1104-S1 and 16-1104-S2. They can be looked up here.)
Critics say new rules a ‘tactic to silence us’
Much of the comment period during Tuesday’s meeting was run by Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, who is the council’s assistant president pro-tem. He did not respond to a request for comment about the new rules, as of publication.
Rob Quan, of Unrig LA, who closely monitors council meetings and how the council president and other council leadership handles public comment, said that there is a substantial discrepancy between the council rules that are on the books, and what was instituted by the council president.
If the change had been “a one-off, there is nothing really problematic about that,” Quan said. He acknowledged the council president could have the ability to make occasional changes. There is some “wiggle room,” due to language in the council rules saying that “general public comment” on issues not in the agenda “generally” needs to be taken up “at or near the beginning of each regular meeting.”
But that was not what the people running the recent meetings have been saying about the new process, Quan says. They are saying, “this is our new comment policy, this is our procedure,” he said. “We now do the general public comment at the end.”
“That’s like the exact opposite,” he said. “They’re saying it shall generally be taken at the end.”
Cassidy Bennett, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said the rules change was confusing for many people on Tuesday, and it even caused many to have to adjust prepared statements to fit existing agenda items that were available to be commented on, including one that was relevant to tenants, but was limited to concerns about tenants being able to have pets in units.
Bennett also pointed out that adding to the confusion is that general comment was listed at the top of Tuesday’s meeting agenda, Bennett said. And like Quan, she pointed out that the council rules state that “general public comment” must generally be taken at the beginning or near the start of the meeting.
Bennett said these rules are similar to ones adopted about a year ago by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Their group and others are currently urging Supervisors to change those rules, and she says she hopes that the city council will also reconsider this latest change.
Ghaemi, of Community Power Collective, called the new rules a “tactic to silence people,” similar to other ones the council has instituted to control or put a damper on outrage about recent scandals at City Hall, such as Council member Kevin de Leon’s involvement in the leaked Fed tapes that caught him and other council members, who have sense resigned or left the council, making racist and homophobic statements, all while scheming to draw district lanes that disenfranchise voters but benefit their own careers.
Ghaemi said that public comment, together with other actions taken by community members, are often done in an unequal setting in which there is an imbalance between interests with money to influence council members, and those with few resources, like tenants. He said that it depends on the council member, but tenants usually have to work much harder to get the ear of elected officials, when compared to corporate and so-called “mom-and-pop” landlords, who often are represented by groups or entities that have the resources to donate to council members’ campaigns.
“The only leverage we have are our numbers,” Ghaemi said of tenants. But meetings like the one on Tuesday show how the public comment period and meetings are the council members’ “theater,” in which those powerful officials have an upperhand in deciding the rules for how things can go.
Still, for tenants who often do not have the resources to influence with money, public comment is one of the avenues they can still use to try to influence council members, in which they still have a chance to be heard.
“It’s hard for tenants to do it, because they have so much going on in their lives,” Ghaemi said. “The fact that tenants do do it is a testament to you know, how … literally close to home is this political problem where they’re willing to put aside other obligations to show up just to give a public comment? … People’s financial situations are becoming so dire that it’s pushing tenants to mobilize and organize in all types of ways. Public comment is one of those ways.”
Ghaemi said that people took precious time out of their lives that they could ill-afford to waste on Tuesday, and when they saw that council members did not seem interested in listening to them, it became a “politically radicalizing experience” for them.
Quan said that he was especially troubled by how the council treated one public commenter who had called in at the beginning of the meeting, who sounded like she was near tears, to make a desperate plea for help. Bob Blumenfield, the councilman leading the meeting at that time, ended up directing the commenter to call one of the council offices, but Quan said council meetings can be one of the few ways Angelenos could demand that services be delivered.
At the beginning of that comment, the city attorney instructed the caller to speak only about an item that was “open,” or available for comment, as is dictated under the new rules.
The commenter, sounding flustered about this, asked if there was an item that related to housing, and apologized for not knowing what all the agenda item numbers the city attorney read out meant.
“I don’t know the number for housing, I’m sorry,” she said.
The city attorney suggested an item that had to do with housing and companion animals, so she said, “Okay, do you have any items that have anything to do with evictions?”
Blumenfield, who was leading the meeting, intervened in an irritated tone, telling the commenter, “we can’t have this back and forth” and said they needed to move onto the next speaker.
The woman then settles for speaking about the item on housing and companion animals, and says, “I need help with housing. Please. I am desperate at this point. I’m damn near about to be homeless. Please help me. I just got locked out of my house today. I need help. Any resources that you have, please, can you help me?”
In response, Blumenfield told the caller, “This isn’t the forum for that but if you contact any one of our staff or contact our offices, we are absolutely happy to help you … This is not the forum for that. This is public comment. And we’ll have to move to the next speaker but please do contact our offices so we can help connect you with services. Next speaker please.”
Just before the caller hangs up, they said, in a tone that sounded crushed and as though they were about to dissolve into tears, “Okay, thank you.”
What Orzoco wanted to say
Orozco had wanted to ask the council to dig deeper than they have, to tackle issues that they were not yet comfortable tackling, such as finding a way to cancel rent debt, or to move quicker on a “right-to-counsel” that would make tenant attorneys available to people in the way public defenders are for people in criminal court.
The amount she earns from her street vending business can only do so much, she thought, and most of the city council members got into office — and were entrusted with the power that they now have — by pledging to serve the communities they represent and to help her and other families thrive. Their high positions afforded them the power to marshall the resources that can prevent people from becoming homeless, to stem a coming tide of evictions.
Some council members would immediately understand, she thought, because at least one of them said they were raised by street vendors. Others would at least be able to feel how dire things were just through the sound of her voice reading the words that she had prepared.
In her notebook she wrote down the words that she now feels city officials never cared to listen to.
“So I ask you council members, you are the only people with the power to do something …. How are families like us supposed to live on the streets?”