While many Pleasanton residents might not be happy with their water bills increasing starting next year, some community members said they are also mad about how the final public hearing went down.
Linda Kelly, a longtime resident who has been involved in water-related discussions in Pleasanton for years, said the city knew there was a group of residents like her who could not go inside the at-capacity Operations Services Center during the City Council meeting last week and still didn't do enough about the problem.
"It didn't feel like the kind of open council meeting that I'm accustomed to seeing," Kelly told the Weekly. "It felt wrong and it still feels wrong."
However, according to Mayor Karla Brown, the city did everything it could to make sure those who did not speak at the Sept. 19 water rate discussion had a chance to speak at the Nov. 7 hearing.
"I was 100% assured by the city clerk that all people that wanted to speak and did not speak at the previous meeting, had the opportunity to do so," Brown told the Weekly. "This included those, if any, that were outside. However, I saw many people come in from outside and join the meeting as it progressed."
On Nov. 7, the council majority voted 3-2 to accept a modified two-year water rate increase schedule where the city plans to raise the rates by 30% for the average residential customer starting Jan. 1 and by 12% in 2025 amid financial instability for the city's water enterprise fund.
While residents once again packed the council meeting, which was held in an interim setting as the city continues to renovate the dedicated council chambers at city hall, Kelly said at one point roughly 25 people were told to wait outside -- a lot of whom left almost immediately. It was the first council meeting after a 3-2 vote at the prior session to eliminate the option for residents to offer live public comments to the council remotely.
Kelly said she left early on because as someone who has attended countless meetings over the years, there was no point in waiting hours outside in the cold for her name to get called.
"If I had stayed, I'd have been sitting out there almost two and a half hours before I could speak," she added.
City communications manager Heather Tiernan, however, told the Weekly, that wasn't the full story.
"The city was aware that people were waiting outside at the beginning of the City Council meeting on Nov. 7, but nobody was turned away from speaking," Tiernan said. "The Remillard Room has the capacity for 54 audience members -- after considering the City Council, staff and TV 30 crew -- and once that capacity was reached, the fire marshal asked people to wait outside until space became available inside or until their name was called to speak."
The Remillard Room has less audience capacity than the regular council chambers, which also has an adjacent indoor lobby space where a meeting can be observed.
Tiernan said that chairs were provided outside on Nov. 7, people were following along with the meeting on the YouTube stream and that as people left the meeting, "the fire marshal allowed people in on a one out, one in ratio. By 8:30 p.m. there was nobody outside waiting to get into the meeting."
But Kelly said there was no loudspeaker to hear what was going on and that she isn't tech savvy enough to stream the meeting on her phone. She said even if she wanted to follow the meeting virtually, she still wouldn't have.
"I don't think I'd have been willing to sit out and watch the meeting on YouTube on my phone sitting on that hard bench," she said. "It was dark and getting darker and it felt like we were unwelcomed."
While what transpired during the meeting wasn't something Vice Mayor Jack Balch had predicted would happen, he said the majority council's decision to remove virtual comments didn't help the matter.
Balch had initially advocated for the city to continue using virtual comments and said that while he understands other cities have seen issues with people spewing hate speech anonymously, there are a lot of benefits to having virtual comments for people who are unable to attend meetings in person for whatever reason.
"I understand it's hate speech what some of these people are doing," he added. "But is it worse to have that? Or is it worse to exclude people from being able to participate in their government? ... The answer is, it's worse to exclude people from being able to participate in their government."
He added that when residents come to meetings with the presumption that they are going to speak in real time and they are not able to, the alternatives of emailing, writing in and calling other council members are no longer really on the table, which means their voices are no longer able to be heard.
That's why he said he will be asking the council to consider reinstating virtual comments during the matters initiated portion of the next council meeting in December.
Tiernan noted the council will continue to hold meetings at the Operations Services Center on Busch Road while renovations to improve the audio for those in the room and listening at home are made to the main council chambers at the Pleasanton Civic Center on Old Bernal Avenue.
She said that "in the event that a council member must attend a meeting virtually, public comment will also be allowed virtually for those meetings."
In the end, a still-frustrated Kelly told the Weekly that the mayor had approached her days after the meeting trying to defend the city by saying that Kelly and others who might have wanted to speak at the Nov. 7 meeting had already spoken at previous water rate meetings. Brown had actually kicked off the meeting last week by saying the same thing and reminded folks at the beginning of public comments that many residents already had a chance to speak on the topic at the prior hearing.
However, Kelly said that since the Sept. 19 meeting, the city had launched a water rate calculator that allowed single-family homeowners to calculate what the rate increases would do to their particular situation. That gave Kelly and other residents a chance to see how the rates would affect their bills, which led to more questions and possible alternative solutions that residents wanted to present to the council, but might not have been able to do so.
"I had learned some other things that were pertinent and I knew a different way of avoiding that 30% kick in the teeth," Kelly said. "When I watched the meeting afterwards, there was another gentleman who had done some really good calculations and he wanted to present it. But because he had spoken at the previous meeting, he was disallowed."