It is great that the people of Berkley are so active in their City Council and it seems that participation has helped them work through the "hot button" issues that have been up for debate. This article also points out some of the challenges facing those who want to participate, such as finding and using an adequate meeting space. It must be one that is accessible to all people and able to fit all the people that wish to take part.
Language is another question of participation that is not addressed in the following article. When people who speak and understand languages other than English wish to participate, it is necessary to provide interpretation. This is not as daunting a task as it seems because many people are bilingual or multilingual and for their own experience or desire to participate, they would be willing to help out. At grassroots conferences around the country this is evident, so it can surely carry on to the City Council level. Breaking down language barriers provides better understanding of other individuals and groups and is key to making successful participatory democracy. - Editor
Last Friday, a local activist group was awarded for its role in improving the level of public participation during City Council meetings.
SuperBOLD, or Super Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense-a Berkeley citizens' rights advocate group, received the James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for its role in promoting public participation during City Council meetings.
The award "recognize(s) Bay Area organizations and individuals who have made significant contributions to the advancement of freedom of expression," according to its Web site.
Two years ago, SuperBOLD met with attorneys from the First Amendment Project, a non-profit law firm, to file letters against the City Council, threatening a lawsuit unless they changed their public speaking procedures during council meetings.
Before the City Council's reforms, ten members of the public were chosen by lottery to speak during council meetings. Those who lost the lottery were not allowed to speak, said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.
Worthington said that the letters prompted the council to spend several months reforming the system. The current reforms were enacted earlier this year.
"Under the new system, even if you have one person waiting to speak, if they're patient, they'll have a chance to speak," he said.
According to SuperBOLD committee member Gene Bernardi, the award will help the group attain public awareness and support.
"It's giving us a lot more attention to the issue, and I think that will hopefully bring more people into the fold to help," she said.
Although she said she believes public participation has improved, Bernardi said that more help is needed to improve the City Council. She said that the city must increase the size of its council chambers to adequately involve the public during well-attended council meetings.
"Some people were standing in the cold and in the mud," she said. "It's not participatory democracy if you can't hear what's going on."
Worthington says the council chambers can hold roughly 100 people, and over 1,000 have attended council meetings before.
"I think (Bernardi) has a legitimate complaint," he said. "Most people can't sit in the audience and watch (the council meetings). I think council meetings should be moved to a wheelchair accessible space and a larger space, so that more people can be there and watch."
Worthington added that SuperBOLD is expected to attend a council meeting on April 22 to propose the "Sunshine Ordinance," which aims to make city information more easily accessible to the public.