Growing Incivility Leads Upland Council To Change Public Comment Protocol

For decades, Upland has lived up to its nickname, The City of Gracious Living, in the conducting of its public meetings, which were almost always run with dignity and decorum.
Recent events in the city and the public reaction to them have created a somewhat different milieu. The first and perhaps major element in this declension was the indictment and conviction of former Upland Mayor John Pomierski on political corruption charges relating to his taking bribes in exchange for obtaining favorable treatment at City Hall for those seeking city permits or those subject to the city’s regulatory function. That was followed by the arrest of Pomierski’s hand-picked city manager, Robb Quincey, on charges of unlawful misappropriation of public money, gaining personal benefit from an official contract, and giving false testimony under oath, which ultimately led to his conviction on a single conflict of interest count. In 2014, city officials further squandered the good will of many of their citizens when the city embarked on a criminal prosecution of a city resident, Fernand Bogman, who took it upon himself to cease watering his lawn as California entered a third year of drought. With city prosecutor Dan Peelman angling to put him into jail for his alleged crime, Bogman stood his ground and he became something of a cause célèbre throughout the state as newspapers, and then television and radio stations picked up on the story. The city of Upland and its officials came across as being faintly ridiculous through all the coverage, and less than two weeks after Peelman in March dropped the case against Bogman, California Governor Jerry Brown mandated water conservation measures throughout the state that mimicked those Bogman had voluntarily imposed upon himself. Last October 23, Isaiah Shelton, a sixth-grader at Cabrillo Elementary School, was killed in a hit-and-run accident on his way to school as he stepped off the southeast curb on Benson Avenue to cross Arrow Highway. A groundswell of petitions to the Upland City Council to restore the school crossing guard program the city had abandoned some four years previously out of economic motivation followed, including pleas by parents and other members of the community at city council meetings. When the council failed to respond immediately to the requests for the crossing guard program restoration, the first widespread showing of disrespect toward the council in memory manifested late last year and was repeated at council meetings early this year. Large numbers of people in attendance at the meetings openly expressed their low regard of the council. This included shouting insults at the members on the council dais, choruses of boos and catcalls greeting utterances by the council members, and open public expression of derision being vectored by council meeting attendees toward city officials.
When the controversial issue of medical marijuana availability in the city was brought to a head with a successful petition drive by marijuana availability advocates to qualify an early 2015 referendum on permitting pot shops to operate in the city and city officials sought to short circuit it by a legalistic interpretation of the licensing fee provision contained in the voter initiative and succeeded in postponing the vote until 2016, the council found itself subject to even further public obloquy.
The coup-de-grace came when Upland Development Services Director Jeff Zwack pushed forward with the approval process for the city general plan update, which had been slow cooking on one of the city’s back burners for seven years. Zwack in April pushed the update into public view and sought a quick ratification. This resulted in yet another manifestation of resident discontent, with large numbers of people showing up at council meetings to voice their opposition to the direction of the revised general plan as well as specific provisions within it.
In a reflexive action, the city council, led by Mayor Ray Musser, has sought to alter the ground rules for the public comment element of city council meetings. Formerly, citizens were afforded the opportunity to speak at the public comment period of the meeting, which came relatively early in the proceedings after the flag salute, invocation and presentations but before the council’s vote on the consent calendar – featuring non-controversial and routine items – and the more involved elements of the council agenda such as council action items and public hearings. Citizens were also afforded the opportunity to speak during each of the public hearings, as well, but could only address at that point the item of relevance to that particular public hearing. Recently instituted changes, however, have designated the public input near the beginning of the meeting for issues contained on the agenda, while reserving comment on non-agendized issues for a newly created public comment period designated at the end of the meeting. Because some meetings last for several hours, this has resulted in those citizens wishing to be heard having to wait as late as 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. or even midnight to get their opportunity to speak.
Some perceive this change as a ploy to limit, dampen or discourage public criticism of the council or otherwise discourage public participation in Upland’s civic processes.
The wave of protest over the general plan update in Upland has not subsided. This week, an element of the community protesting those changes began distributing a flier/handbill which states in its bold headline “Stop The General Plan! It’s based on an environmental political philosophy. This is part of a long-term effort to get Americans used to smaller lots, homes, vistas, resources and expectations [and] a politically predetermined lower standard of living by design.” According to the flier, the new general plan will impose higher density on the city of Upland and “higher density increases crime.” The flier calls for citizens to show up en masse at the July 13 city council meeting and the July 22 planning commission meeting to register their objections.
Marilyn Mills, a prime mover in the effort against the new general plan, said she believed that the city council and development services director Jeff Zwack are engaged in “stonewalling” to prevent the community from providing meaningful input on the proposed changes to the general plan. She said incorporating the community’s true collective sentiment into the process would necessitate that the new plan be altered significantly, which is contrary to the agenda of those currently in political control at City Hall. “What we have is more than just suspicions,” Mills said. She said the entire council is avoiding having any meaningful discussions with regard to the contents of the general plan revision. “Not one of them is willing to talk to the citizens in a public setting,” she said. She said the workshops the city is putting on with regard to the general plan revision merely outline staff’s proposal and do not provide a forum for obtaining feedback from the public. She said that councilman Gino Filippi “outright refused” to meet with her and others of like mind. “He said we should be happy with the workshops and we are lucky that we are getting that,” Mills said. “They are just looking to build higher density housing and they are running the clock out on our time to offer public input. I believe the city’s attorneys have advised them on how to do this. Putting the public comment session at the end of the meeting is part of this.”
Mayor Ray Musser insisted there was no ulterior motive to the changes being incorporated into the council meeting agendas which included separating public comment into two sessions.
“We made that change to accommodate people rather than to exclude them,” Musser insisted. “We are experimenting to see what works best. Nothing is set in concrete. We used to have the public comment section right up front and now we have oral communications for things not listed on the agenda at the end. We might go back to the way it was before, but we are trying this out. People can still comment on anything on the agenda at the first public comment session. But what we are trying to do is get people who have come for a specific item on the agenda out of there sooner. Sometimes before they would have to stay until it was very late at night before we would get to the item they had come for. Anything that is not on the agenda will be held to the end to allow us to focus on what we are trying to accomplish that night. People can still comment. We are not changing that. Many organizations do it that way. I can change it back.”
Musser said he and the council were “trying to be accommodating of everyone’s’ views.”
He acknowledged he was taken aback by the vituperation and hostility of some elements of the crowd at some recent council meetings. His impression, especially with regard to the medical marijuana issue and even some of those offering input on the general plan is that “A lot of these people are from out of town. That concerns me. It is the Upland people these issues affect. I am not saying they are not welcome but I am saying we as a council need to give our greatest attention to the people who are impacted by our decisions.”
Musser noted that he had been criticized as well for limiting speaking time, on some occasions to three minutes rather than the four minutes customarily provided to speakers at Upland’s meetings. “When you have forty speakers, it is just not practical to give them each four minutes,” he said. “That delays the other parts of the meeting to an ungodly hour.”
Mills said that it was not accurate to say that those animated about the general plan change are out-of-towners. She said it was her perception Musser and the council were changing the speaking rules to discourage Upland residents from speaking out about items having a direct impact on them and which City Hall is trying to ramrod through.
Musser said he was considering allowing those who have come to speak about the general plan update to speak at the early public input session, even though that subject is not on the agenda. “I don’t want to make them more upset than they are,” he said. “I’ll play it by ear and ask to see how many of them are there to talk about that. I will let them be heard.”

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