ESCONDIDO — Following a heated discussion, the Escondido City Council voted to rescind a policy requiring online public comments to be read out loud at council meetings.
Earlier this year, the City Council approved a policy by a 4-1 vote on Aug. 16 requiring the city clerk to read public comments submitted online out loud, continuing a practice started during the COVID-19 pandemic due to social distancing measures. Only Mayor Dane White opposed continuing the practice.
On Nov. 2, Councilmember Christian Garcia emailed the mayor, council and city manager, requesting a reconsideration of the August vote. Two weeks later on Nov. 15, Garcia, White and Councilmember Mike Morasco supported changing the policy by removing the requirement to read online comments aloud. Instead, public comments submitted online will be distributed to each council member prior to meetings and permanently filed with the meeting minutes.
Garcia said he believes the old practice was “doing a disservice to our community.”
“When public comments are read from online submittals, there’s no way to directly respond to them,” he said. “It’s not fair to the citizens who are truly concerned about public affairs coming in and speaking here, and it’s not fair to the people who write in and don’t get a direct response.”
Before the vote, Escondido was one of the only cities in the county that still read public comments submitted online out loud.
“It is not a standard practice,” White said.
The decision to change the policy appears to have stemmed from 64 public comments recently submitted online that White, Garcia and Morasco say are mostly coming from non-residents of Escondido about a subject that “doesn’t concern” the city.
A majority of the comments appear to be asking the city to demand an Israel ceasefire in Palestine’s Gaza Strip in the midst of the Israeli-Hamas War.
“I’m against radical, agendized groups and individuals attempting to hijack the meeting for something that has nothing to do with the business meeting of the city,” Morasco said. “That’s what this is – a business meeting – not an open, public forum for whatever items someone wants to pontificate.”
Several members of the public, four in person and around a dozen online, pushed back against the policy change.
Some explained how the policy ensured that the City Council heard the voices of people who cared about an issue but couldn’t make it due to a variety of reasons, including mobility issues, work, class schedules and childcare.
“Many people want to come but can’t,” said Escondido resident Carl Tucker. “It’s wonderful what we have… I don’t want to change it.”
Others noted that simply giving the public comments submitted online in writing to council members didn’t guarantee that they would read them.
Morasco said it was “silliness” to suggest that the people’s voices won’t be heard without the policy.
Deputy Mayor Joe Garcia and Councilmember Consuelo Martinez voted against changing the policy, wanting to keep the previously approved practice of reading online comments out loud in place.
“Even though it’s not the norm in the region, I appreciate that we’ve been accessible,” Martinez said.
Martinez also said it wasn’t normal for the City Council to be “bombarded with” public comments as it has in recent weeks.
“What I’m hearing from the public, both in writing and here today, is that they want to keep the policy,” she said. “I have not heard a person say we shouldn’t – the only folks that I’m hearing this from are some of my colleagues.”
In response, Morasco said he “never had an issue” without the policy during his 13 years on the City Council.
CORRECTION: A previous version incorrectly stated Imperial Beach read public comments aloud.