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Public comment feels less like civic participation and more like a DDoS attack on democracy

Illustration | Leo Cooperband

Jane Natoli is a local advocate who sits on the Airport Commission and spends too much time thinking about the future of San Francisco. She resides in the Inner Richmond when she’s not biking all over the city.

In a 19-hour meeting that started on Saturday at 10 a.m. and went into the small hours of Sunday, the Redistricting Task Force (RDTF) heard from dozens of citizens concerned about a proposed map before finally adjourning after 5 a.m. If the nine members had been wage-earning employees and not civic-minded volunteers, their shift would have gone into double overtime.

Last Saturday’s meeting came after marathon sessions by the RDTF last Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday—all of which involved dozens of hours of public commentary about the direction of the current maps. This Monday saw another meeting that went well into the next day.

Hundreds of people spoke passionately. Some spoke dishonestly. But all were heard. 

Yet it’s become clear that many individuals and groups feel like they are not being heard through the existing process simply because what they said wasn’t immediately incorporated into the plan, and that’s a problem for all of us. Public comment now functions like a distributed denial-of-service (or DDoS) attack on government bodies, clobbering decision-makers on any controversial decision or process the way internet bots can disrupt traffic to a website. Separating meaningful feedback from personal attacks is impossible as both are given equal weight.

At its best, public comment is a great way to understand the sentiments and ideas of people and groups to help shape policy and decisions. Regular citizens can petition elected individuals and bureaucratic appointees on issues that matter to them and make sure that their voices are heard and accounted for. However, it is also highly overvalued. As a city, we tend to value showing up over other forms of participation, even though people can and do submit written comments, participate in surveys or find other ways to provide valuable input to shape our policies and decisions. 

It’s why, despite surveys showing a majority of residents support a car-free JFK Drive, still more process is required. People “have their say” during public comment even though many residents have already spoken through other means. San Francisco city government should strive to weigh all feedback equally. Polling and focus groups can get deeper into an issue than anyone can ever get in a couple minutes, so we need our elected and appointed officials to take a beat and challenge the primacy bias of in-person comment. Yes, it’s valuable, but it’s not more or less valuable than other means of input. 

In an ideal world, we would already be doing that because privileging public comment over other forms of participation has a number of drawbacks. People can say whatever they want in public comment (good!) except also there is absolutely no fact-checking of the truth  (bad!), and we seem to even just lack a common language when on opposite sides of issues (worse!) as we frequently are in politics, whether locally or nationally. All the world’s a stage, but a person’s two minutes at the dais or after the line is unmuted can be a genuine performance.

Hyperbole knows no boundary at public comment. Listen to any session from a relatively well-attended meeting and you will certainly hear an example of someone telling you to move back to where you are from or that someone is corrupt or on somebody’s payroll or secretly doing the bidding of an elected official.

On top of this, we see all these elements exacerbated with redistricting. It’s a confluence of challenges: The task force had a shorter timeline due to delays in the census, but we need maps for our upcoming November elections. So this is the kind of process that comes along rarely, impacts everyone in the city and has to finish quickly. Really, if you were going to design a process that would break like this, you couldn’t do it much better, although that certainly doesn’t explain the rancor. 

Long meetings and angry comments are nothing new, of course. I’ve been to hours-long SFMTA and Planning Commission meetings that are full of vitriol. And anyone who gives comment relatively frequently can tell you that the same small set of individuals tend to show up. On top of that, it’s not necessarily a representative sample. First, you need the time to participate in hours-long meetings just to provide a couple minutes of commentary. Second, there is an inherent bias toward who is already there (especially when it comes to housing), whereas the people who might benefit from a change are a more diffuse, less organized group. Whether it’s redistricting or most other processes in the city, public comment favors incumbent interests.  

Despite all this, public comment can be valuable. I sit on the Airport Commission, and I appreciate learning more about what is or isn’t working at SFO. People raise issues we may not think to ask about as commissioners, and it’s valuable to hear perspectives from people affected by our decisions. But the process seems to frustrate many participants. When so many people say they do not feel like they have been heard or acknowledged is it working?

While this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, research by Katherine Levine Einstein, David Glick, Luisa Godinez-Puig and Maxwell Palmer regarding participation in terms of public comment on housing suggests the online comment disparities about who participates to be virtually identical to meetings before online participation became an option. We know that the people who show up to offer public comment are not representative (nor could they be) of all the diverse identities, ideas and needs of a given community, and yet individuals frequently become a kind of synecdoche for an entire city. 

The Brown Act requires public comment on any item on an agenda for public meetings, so it’s not going anywhere any time soon. So it’s incumbent upon all of us to figure out a way to make it more productive for our governing bodies. Irrespective of anyone’s feelings on a proposed district map, making critical decisions deep into the morning after an incredibly long meeting is counterproductive—and a potential health risk for the task force members, given we are not quite out of this pandemic.  

It may feel good in the moment to yell at a government body. Occasionally, it may even be necessary. That is always one’s prerogative with public comment. However, I’d challenge all of us to consider the better angels of our nature and to remember that we are not just giving comment to a faceless body, but our friends, our neighbors and our fellow citizens of San Francisco who are, in most cases, just regular people who care a lot and want to try and make our city a better place. Baselessly accusing them of advancing a conspiracy or being bought and sold damages our efficacy in our government and our processes. We ask a lot of people who take on roles like this in a mostly volunteer capacity. We should ask the same of ourselves when we step up to the mic for our two minutes.

Follow Jane on Twitter at @wafoli

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