Public Comment

A Single Use City Council

Steve Martinot
Friday February 08, 2019 - 10:50:00 AM

We all know the drill. We go to City Council session with specific issues, and sit and wait. When the mayor calls our agenda item, we line up in the aisle for a chance to speak. Its called “public comment.” Fortunately, it is not called “public participation,” nor “democracy in action,” because that would not be truthful. It is more like people lining up to buy tickets at a multiplex movie theater, a structure designed to admit (to a domain) rather than include in a process. Ideas that should play in a multi-dimensional space of dialogue find themselves relegated to a disorganized linearity (aka "commenting"). Our contributions become like cartoon balloons, each with its own monologue firmly encircled. 

However, the difference between us and the council is more that merely dialogue vs. monologue. The council addresses “agenda items,” and we speak to real issues. An issue involves the destiny of real people. It is what policy is about. Issues require dialogue. An item is only a moment of procedure, pretending to play the role of policy-making. It ultimately gets reduced to numbers, sinking into a drama of “for or against.” Indeed, the clerk tabulates both comments and council discussion on an item in terms of "for" or "against." Yet items get "discussed," while our issues are permitted only monologue. The hierarchy between dialogue and monologue gets reversed. 

People line up because they want to participate in policy-making, while their ideas get thrown under the bus of procedure. We speak on policy (which requires dialogue) and find ourselves reduced to a minute of monologue. Then we sit back down in frustration at the scam, victims of the delusion that "comment" is something other than ritual. That’s the drill. 


Usually, people speak in opposition to an item or its policy. That’s because the item was formulated without them, though they will be affected by the policy it fosters. But once in a while, a large number of people show up to support an item. Then the difference between item and issue becomes crystal clear, as happened on January 22, 2019. 

The issue was the atrocity of waste. Not garbage. Waste. Not production in excess of need, but wasted production insofar as it creates unneeded consumer need. The issue was the glut of plastic that fills dumps from landfills to oceanic coagulations. The specific aspect on which City Council focused was “single use plastic” utensils – the use-it-once-and-toss-it kind of waste. For instance, in the agenda item, it mentions that Berkeley’s 120,000 people use an estimated 40 million plastic cups every year. That’s enormous production by a complex industry to be subjected to a flick of a wrist. And its truly dizzying aspect (having recently made the front page) is that it is even despoliating the oceans. 

There is a floating mass of slowly decomposing plastic about twice the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific. Fish are dying because they ingest this stuff in various forms. On land, there are networks of ecology centers that sweep up masses of plastic each day. It forms an international economy constantly looking for recycling facilities. Much used to go to China, but recent reductions by the Chinese have put US waste management in crisis. The issue has come home to roost. 

We now house whole industries that produce commodities for the purpose of rapidly becoming waste (plastic cups, dishes, styrofoam containers, etc.). One person summarized this absurd trajectory as follows. The corporate economy tears up the planet through extraction, constructs a petroleum-based chemistry industry whose processes are toxic to life, renders the air unbreathable using fossil fuel energy, creates poverty by paying wages lower than the rising cost of living, all to produce things that will be used only once and thrown away. 

A Zero Waste Commission has existed in Berkeley since 2006 (its original form dating from 1975). It produced this particular agenda item, which it called the “Single Use Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance.” Though its documentation ran for 120 pages of description on how to do this, it never addressed the important questions. Instead, it reduced them to monetary details – a 25 cent value given to not using a plastic cup for take-out coffee, for instance. 

It was up to the line-up of people to address the important issues. Dozens of people, business people, café and restaurant owners, environmentalists, social welfare specialists, and even school children, not only lined up and spoke in favor of the measure, but gave political, economic and cultural reasons why it was necessary. They presented data, gave profound analysis peppered with biting critique and alternative wisdom. Had all their "comments" been compiled and given unitary coherence, it would have gone far beyond substantiating the item’s pragmatism. Unfortunately, the meat-grinder of the "comment" ritual scambled their analytic testimonies into a cacophony. Their critique of the social and corporate structure that could foist such a problem on society and on the planet sank beneath the waves of procedure. 

The process of public "comment" (which should be called “public analysis” in this case) outlined a three stage process of despoliation. First, there was the dependence of the plastic industry on petroleum, the queen of extractive industries that has become so destructive of earthly coherence it is even causing earthquakes in Oklahoma. Second, there is the depoliation of health and safety through the ubiquity of toxic chemicals, such as the dioxin in the SF bay-bottom that is stirred up by swimmers and ingested by fish, or carcinogenic collateral chemicals that seep out of plastic containers in which food is stored and sold. And finally, it is a tale of an endless impoverishing expansion of dumps. 

What was not mentioned, though it serves as the avatar for this paradigm, was nuclear waste. It is the lethal leftovers from an energy process so deadly it has to be encased in 4 feet of steel. The waste sits where they (not we) put it, rotting out the contianers that they (not we) put it in, gradually generating escape conditions for itself by which to ultimately leak out into the ground on which we walk. And it doesn’t go away, not on any human time scale. 

Spoiler Alert: the present move to curtail fossil fuels is rejuvenating the specter of nuclear energy and its lethal waste. 

Fossil fuels devastate our environment much more quickly, however. Ever since the 1950s, we have seen cities get covered over with gray clouds like huge moldy growths – Hershey, PA; Los Angeles; Pittsburgh, PA; Mexico City, Beijing, etc. In 1977, one could stand on a mountain and see of top of a global layer of browned air at roughly 5500 feet elevation. By 1985, it was up to 10,000 feet. And shortly thereafter, it covered the 13,000 foot peaks of the Rockies. 

By what absurd process has such industrialism been allowed to flourish? 

To its credit, “public analysis” understood single use plastic utensils as an atrocity. One individual, who owned a shop involved in producing just such “single use plastic” items, actually welcomed the measure, and subtly celebrated going out of business in the interest of planetary survival. 

The City Council’s item, however, could only go to the banal extent of advocating monetary means. The measure suggests that, if customers wished to use a plastic cup instead of bringing their own resuable one for take-out, it will add 25¢ to the drink. Thus, council simply put a small brake on single use culinary plastic. What the measure sought to ensure was that this not look like a tax. Thus, its pragmatism weakened it. The obvious fear was that a stronger one would infringe on “property rights,” leading to civil suits. So the measure didn’t ban single use plastic, nor erode the corporate ability to profit from selling food or drink in ways that were toxic to humans and planet alike. Instead, it continued subservience to marketability and the corporate way, which obstruct our ability to keep the planet livable. In effect, the people who came to council were more interested in resolving the problem than council was. But they didn’t have a chance to put their thinking and analysis together into something that would have better informed the council’s measure. 

Thus, the measure did not measure up to the awareness of the public who came to do more than comment. Lagging behind popular sentiment and the people’s vast social knowledge, the Council’s procedure did not allow them to "participate," or to even include a disquisition on the real responsibilities. If some way had been found to compile what the people presented in their "comments," and put it together in a coherent analytic form, it would have been a powerful critique to add to the measure. Instead, strung out as it was, the comment "period" relegated this knowledge to a kind of disorganized verbal dump. 

What happened in this council meeting was that council attempted to deal with an item, and the speakers, all of whom supported the item, wanted policy-making to rise beyond that and deal with the issues as well. They presented their public analysis in order that it be integrated into the item, rather than excluded. They came to council because they wanted to make policy, which Council procedure does not permit. 

This experience suggests a need to restructure City Council procedures. If council discussion went first, instead of after public comment, the people who came to speak would know, when they spoke, what they were facing in the way council was thinking, and thus what they need to advance to make up any deficit, to change minds, and to make council’s thinking and intentions better. Or, more radically, suppose the format could be changed so that dialogue became possible between the people and the policy-makers. As long as the people are barred from dialogue, they are barred from policy-making. As long as the people are restricted and limited to monologic deliveries in disorganized line-ups, they are essentially silenced. 


In the long run, two important considerations confront us with respect to all this. One is an item, the question of corporate charters. The other is an issue, that of people’s control over policy. 

Many of the comments focused on how the corporate economy has come to dominate our daily lives. The essential principle of human non-responsibility for what a corporation does has the effect of making its victims (of its many forms of toxicity) think that what happens to them is their own fault. Because this ethos makes corporate activity unquestionable, it produces a social sense that the corporations must know what they are doing. The insularity of bureaucratic hierarchy has become a cultural norm, to the point where even investigative journalism has been thrown out. At the same time, the constant proximity of corporate operations makes us think their policies can somehow be brought under our (civilian) democratic control. We find ourselves saying “we can do this and that” with the economy (speaking democratically from a first person plural perspective), though we remain wholly outside any structural connection that would give us the power to do so. We have no say over how a corporation, or the corporate economy as a whole, functions, except by mass external opposition. 

However, the entirety of a corporation’s existence lies in its Charter, which is granted by state Assembly. Under its Charter, corporations can do whatever they like, leaving us to pick up the pieces. To rid ourselves of this plague, to throw off its paradoxes and subserviences, we would have to start repealing charters. That means forming a political structure that will put human interests ahead of property rights. And its direct corollary would be the necessity to find employment for the workers of those corporation disbanded. 

If that is the "item," the "issue" is democracy itself. In the long term, democracy means that those who will be affected by a policy should be the ones to decide on the policy that will affect them. In the absence of that ability, a great step forward would occur by implementing the principle of due process. Due process is what gives individuals equality in the face of a dominant structure or institution (such as a corporation or the police), one that might seek to impose (for instance, deprive a person of life, liberty or property). If a community had the power to demand due process before a toxic production process was introduced into its domain (which would be more that merely a hearing), or an absurd product sold in its stores, then it could introduce its cultural tradition, its communal taste, and the precautionary principle. All that could be brought to bear democratically, with a modicum of equality. The corporate way has been to dispense with due process.