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Letter to the Editor: If you are “uncomfortable” with free speech and criticism, maybe public service is not for you

 

At last night’s Portola City Council meeting, the council decided unanimously to prohibit remote participation that has allowed people to engage with meetings from home (or work) for years. Why would the council choose to limit public participation rather than encouraging different options for people to comment? This move is possibly contrary to state law and will not prevent critics of the council from speaking out, as it is clearly intended to do.
What it will do is prevent public participation by those who are older, people with disabilities, people with children or no childcare options, those working night shifts, those who can’t drive (or can’t drive in the dark), those with serious chemical or electrical injuries and sensitivities, those concerned about respiratory diseases as well as caregivers of ill residents (who may not be able to physically appear at the council). Basically, normal, everyday people.
Portola City Council is moving in the wrong direction under the new city manager. Remote participation has become a standard option for local government meetings in the past several years.  At last night’s meeting, roughly 45 minutes were spent discussing this distraction. How many more minutes and hours were spent behind closed doors, over email, during closed session, etc., on this non-issue? Why is the council spending so much time and energy on limiting participation (which is already minimal at best), when there are far more important issues affecting Portola’s residents, visitors, and environment?
The excuses the council gave for this action were pathetic. Meetings running to midnight? When has that ever happened? Perhaps members of the council (which has seen very little change in ten plus years) are burnt out after years of service. We need other residents of Portola to get involved, speak out, and run for office— those who genuinely want to hear from the people, even when it is difficult. It seems that from the council’s perspective, the public’s role is voting them into office, and then getting out of the way and deferring to the council to make all decisions without broad input.
Yet, the Portola council clearly needs input from the public as it neglects critical public safety issues right on its doorstep:
– This morning, two, 2-foot-wide pipes (directly adjacent to a major entrance and walkway) near the bridge in the city park stood open and filled with water that a child could fall into and drown. The large openings could injure any person or animal walking into this hazard (reported by my wife to city staff). An incident could bankrupt the city, not to mention being an unspeakable tragedy.
– A non-standard, hazardous sewer grate on Gulling right in front of city hall that could easily trap a bicycle tire and cause a deadly head-over-handlebars crash, including at the upcoming Lost and Found race (grate is yards from the start line). We have informed the council about this danger for years without any action.
– At least hundreds of gallons of untreated sewage was reported to have leaked into the Feather River from city sewers in recent months
– A long winter’s worth of gravel and broken glass carpeting the bike/pedestrian lane on A-15 (there is no sidewalk here) forcing cyclists and walkers into the main travel lane, where cars routinely travel above the speed limit around curves.
– A profusely leaking water tap in the park not getting addressed for at least two years (has it been fixed?). City sprinklers running in the middle of the day, flooding into the street, during past severe drought years. And now, the city threatens to disconnect water service to low income folks struggling to pay their exorbitantly high water bills. Residents currently have to decide between feeding their family and keeping the water on, while food prices skyrocket. We all know inflation and high prices are hurting everyone. But when we spoke to a member of the council about this issue, it appeared that the feeing of the council and city manager is that people are just flaky and not paying their water bills because they think they can get away with it. We know several responsible, hard-working people in town having great difficulty paying their water bills and this is definitely not the case.
– As far as we know, the council is neglecting to prevent the threat of large amounts of micro-plastics washing into the Feather River from the new fake (plastic) tree cell tower near EPHC, as these cell towers have done near Lake Tahoe.
Meanwhile, we wonder what it cost tax payers to install CCTV cameras inside the park and outside of the City of Portola offices. Has there been a direct threat to the building or to members of the council to warrant this expense? This should not be a higher priority than keeping our public park and roadways free of direct hazards. The public, who funds the city, needs to ask the council: What are the priorities of this council and how are they set? How, and in what priority, are *our* tax dollars being spent?
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the council should focus their time and efforts on resolving critical safety and health issues for the community (including on its doorstep!) rather than on restricting and attempting to silence public input. Believe it or not, members of the community may even have important safety information to share!
And, in a comment that also applies to the county government in Quincy, if you are an elected official or staff and feel “uncomfortable” with critical feedback from the community, the appropriate response is to look honestly at the criticism and maturely respond to concerns, not try to tamp down comment, silence the public, and start false rumors about individuals who respectfully voice criticism. Quite often, the public process is uncomfortable and messy, but it is essential to community health and mutual trust that we all listen to each other. My feeling is that both city and county governments are currently failing to do their jobs, risking public safety, declining to pay employees a living wage, and embarking on distractions designed to silence dissent rather than deal with it honestly and openly when it is raised.
It is not the council or city manager’s role to determine which comments are acceptable and which are not. It is their job to listen to the public. Do any of us who have been watching the shift of the council to a darker and more authoritarian character over recent months believe that if they could get away with eliminating public comment entirely that they would not do so? Luckily we have state laws that protect the public’s right to speak, and we need to use those rights.
A privileged, out of touch council who look down their noses at the people of Portola, and a city manager who writes outlandish, poorly researched and false assertions in the newspaper (insisting that non-profits should follow the Brown Act—which the city manager himself loudly complains about following!), and who consistently lies to make himself appear more reasonable, is not what Portola deserves. The public deserves better.
People can get more involved by signing up to receive city council agendas by submitting a request to [email protected], as well as joining Feather River Action! (to help look after our beautiful mountain environment and hold elected officials accountable) by e-mailing [email protected] .
Thanks for reading my long letter. Though the local political situation is sad, if all those of us who care about this place band together, I have faith we can turn it around.
Josh Hart
Spokesperson

10 thoughts on “Letter to the Editor: If you are “uncomfortable” with free speech and criticism, maybe public service is not for you

  • This article should have been only a few sentences.

    While I agree that remote people should be heard, there were counterarguments with valid logic. After a good discussion and careful consideration of all points, the council addressed the logical concerns and voted. This was a great example of our Democratic Republic in action.

    To the author, at no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone who has read this is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

    • How is a city council elected with only ~20% of the population, who decide to restrict public comment in opposition to all the public comment received last night, in any way “a great example of our democratic republic in action”?

      • You may not have paid attention, but there were opposing counterpoints from other people who attended in-person. I had to agree with one strong counterpoint, and that was the deciding factor for the council. Going forward, the public can submit comments on the agenda which is posted online at least 72 hours in advance of the meeting. I encourage the public to read the agenda in advance, think critically and logically, and then submit a concise comment that stays on topic.

      • Good morning all,
        I find it interesting that the individuals that have to most to say about the City of Portola and the city council don’t even live inside the city limits. Anyone who knows me, knows that I am approachable, and will meet with you and listen to your concerns. I may not have an answer for your concerns immediately, but I will do what I can to find an answer. I ran for City council to be a voice for the citizens. But I will not be a voice for those who do not live in the City and those who make comments as concerned citizen, anonymous, or group participant, etc.
        Prior to COVID, virtual meetings were non existent. If someone had a concern they would either write a letter asking that it be read into public record or show up in person to be heard. And yes those who were disabled and elderly came to the meetings. We had one gentleman that was wheelchair bound, double amputee, that came to almost every meeting.
        I opposed virtual meetings before I was on the council and wrote letters stating such. I feel that the public asks for transparency from the council, I in turn ask for transparency from the public as well. Hiding behind a fake name to me, gives you no creditability. So to say that the council is not being transparent, look in the mirror, are you being transparent?
        If you have an issue come to a meeting, start a conversation, contact me to discuss it. [email protected].
        Thanks Leah Turner, City Council member and citizen.

        • Hi Leah, You have a right to your opinion, but wouldn’t it have been a good idea to ask what the community thought before cutting off remote access to meetings to those who depend on it? It’s not just about what those on the council want. This is a community. I agree with you that those using this new plumas news forum should be using their real names.

          There are many residents in Eastern Plumas who depend on the services of the town, are part of the larger community and contribute to the economy. Is it your position that people living in the greater Portola area are not welcome to contribute to meetings by making public comment? Or just not those critical of city council policies?

        • Dear Leah, By the way the reason why I was listed as “anonymous” in the zoom chat (I think this is what you were referring to) is that I was calling in from my home phone line and did not want that number to be public. This is a basic right-to-privacy issue. I clearly announced my identity at the beginning of my public comment- perhaps you didn’t hear.

        • Also, I’d be more than happy to sit down with you or other council members to discuss any of these issues I brought up in my LTE or at the council meeting. I have had the chance to sit down with Bill Powers about a year ago, and it was a friendly, productive discussion. Just let me know! My e-mail is [email protected]

  • Just another example of people worshiping the earth Instead of the Lord.

  • Do the math. With the standard four-year terms on the City Council; for a member, or members to serve for ten years, it would mean 3 elections in which they had succeeded. Though they may not be perfect, and might not be able to fix every problem, nonetheless enough voters have trusted those people to represent their interests. The math is easier for someone who has served for twenty years: five election cycles, and forty years would mean ten election cycles.
    I feel I must point out that the extensive wordiness of your letter refutes your own argument. That one person would have a long, long list of gripes and grievances, then imagine if a few dozen concerned citizens wanted to virtually join a council meeting, and wouldn’t rest until their questions were heard, that meeting might last until midnight a week from whenever. The City Manager and Councilmembers have outlined the methods for appropriately delineating your concerns. If the email, snail mail, in-person public comment session aren’t adequate, launch your own campaign.

  • Please note that I have consistently stood up for public access to public meetings when it has been threatened over the past few years in Plumas County. In 2021, when COVID prevented many people from attending the county board meetings (including to speak against the Portola Sand Mine and Asphalt Plant) and Plumas was one of only a few counties in the state to prohibit remote comments, our public pressure for access is what turned the tide. Sup. Engel was the only one voting against remote public access but the other supes voted for it and Plumas County continues to offer remote access to this day, unlike the City of Portola (COP). Too many times elected officials forget their number one responsibility is to the public. It’s not about them, it’s about us. See: https://www.plumasnews.com/citizens-file-complaint-with-state-regarding-plumas-bos-access/

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