San Jose VTA approves changes to how residents can speak at meetings
A VTA light rail train is pictured in this file photo.

Residents hoping to speak at future VTA board meetings might find themselves waiting until the end of the night.

On Thursday, VTA’s governance and audit committee unanimously approved guidelines for public comment that will go into effect in January. Public comment for items not on the agenda will now be split between the start and end of the transit agency meetings.

Staff says the change is to ensure residents who wish to speak on agendized items have the time to do so.

Board members removed one guideline from the proposal that would have allowed the chairperson to ask community groups or multiple individuals to appoint a spokesperson to speak for them. The board will consider the item at an unspecified later date.

The removed guideline was proposed as a way to streamline meetings by allowing groups to pass a single message through a spokesperson. It was also designed to be voluntary. But transit advocates and VTA employees attacked it as an attempt to limit speech.

“When we limit the voice to just one person speaking for the group, VTA may not be able to hear the passion in other hearts and other minds,” said Armando Barbosa, a VTA employee and member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265.

Monica Mallon, founder of Turnout4Transit, said having a single person speak for the group at meetings sends the wrong message by effectively discouraging public participation.

“Having a lot of stories has been really powerful,” Mallon said.

In March, the agency deferred voting on a proposal to limit time for public comment—residents only get one minute to speak at meetings already. The proposal, which followed recommendations from an independent consultant, was supposed to streamline meetings by limiting the initial comment period to 20 minutes. But advocates said this discourages turnout, because people who missed the first period would have to wait to speak until the end of the meeting. VTA decided to create a different committee to discuss how to improve public engagement.

“The public comment proposal is specifically designed to continue to encourage and allow public comment during a VTA board or committee meeting, while more effectively managing the process of the meetings which are intended to discuss items on the agenda,” VTA spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross told San José Spotlight.

Public transit agencies in the Bay Area generally limit public comments to one to three minutes per person, and the comment period itself varies in length. With the COVID-19 pandemic, remote access to meetings has made it easier for more people to attend, advocates say.

Eugene Bradley, founder of Silicon Valley Transit Users, told San José Spotlight that advocates have helped increase the number of people speaking up at VTA meetings in just the past two years. He said prior to the pandemic, it was common for only five to six people to speak—now it can be as many as 40.

During the meeting, Bradley urged VTA to increase the time limit for public speakers.

“Please consider putting the board comments to two minutes, instead of the normal one minute, because people can’t easily sum up their entire story in one minute,” Bradley said, adding that board meetings often end after 9 p.m. and it’s difficult for people to stick around to make an extra point in the evening if they have work or school the following day.  “Please do the right thing and allow the public to speak as much as possible.”

Bradley and Mallon credit vigorous public comments with helping stop VTA from approving serious cuts to transit service last year. They also said the agency is generally more focused on improving transit operations and service thanks to advocacy from residents.

Public comments have also served as a forum for members of VTA’s unions to share grievances from various departments with the board. Earlier this year, an SEIU representative shared a petition with the board that complained about toxic work culture in the IT department and demanded a third-party investigation.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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