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Does Sacramento's passionate, if motley, cabal of public commenters need more time at city council?
As City Hall deliberates possible changes to the rules for its weekly council meetings, Mac Worthy—the most loyal, if notorious, public commenter—probably has something to say.
That’s because Worthy always gets a word in. He attends nearly every council meeting, often weighing in on multiple agenda items; at a recent one, he spoke on three items for a total of six minutes—but told SN&R he’d “hoped to talk on four for eight.”
He claims to have only missed two meetings over the past couple years, a better attendance record than the mayor. And it’s also not unusual to spot him at committee hearings, county board of supervisor gatherings, local protests and other city’s council powwows. Heck, he was even eyed at the California Republican Party convention earlier this month.
Worthy is, on the surface, Sacramento’s model citizen. But regulars at these meetings and events chide him as the guy who speaks too often, too fast, and too incomprehensibly, what with his Southern cadence and occasional rapid-fire randomness.
Even a police officer at City Hall, Worthy says, once told him that he “speaks too much.”
The 71-year-old South Carolina native comments so frequently that he’s now Internet famous: Sacramento Kings supporters—de rigueur at council these days as well—recently created a popular online meme: a picture of Worthy standing at the podium with the words “pimping the people” emblazoned in large type across the photo.
Indeed, “pimping the people.” It’s Worthy’s new mantra at Tuesday night council, and he, along with his coterie of fellow commenters, recites it often—perhaps ad nauseam—when lecturing city leaders on their wrongdoings.
Worthy accepts that he has naysayers. But he points out that he also has fans. “I have people walk up to me and say, ’Hey, you are that guy downtown. Keep doing what you’re doing,’” he says.
So goes the bizarre cult of anti-personality that sometimes plays out live each Tuesday night at city council. And a new proposal by local activist group Eye on Sacramento would give public commenters like Worthy more time in front of the dais each week.
Craig Powell, executive director of EOS, said that a his group analyzed nearly a decade of council meetings and discovered that during Mayor Kevin Johnson’s tenure, they’re shorter than ever.
As the report reads: “The average length of city council meetings over the past four years has been 2 [hours], 41 [minutes], down from 5 [hours], 24 [minutes] during the final four years of Heather Fargo’s tenure as mayor, a remarkable 50 [percent] reduction.”
The gatherings are briefer now, Powell explained, because council members tend to talk less among themselves during meetings and more behind the scenes or outside of meetings, and items are often removed from the discussion agenda to the consent calendar (where they are up-down voted on without debate).
“And I think that the current mayor probably does not enjoy those meetings as much as his predecessor,” he added.
Maybe this was why, a few years back, council voted to lower the amount of time the public was allowed to speak from three minutes to two. The goal here was to keep the meetings moving. Yet, according to the EOS study, this trim only saved an average of 21 minutes each meeting.
“And it has really degraded the quality of the public comments,” Powell argued.
The EOS proposal asks that the public be permitted three minutes of comment for most council items—but with the caveat that there’s a cap on the total amount of minutes allowed.
“We call this the ’Mac Worthy Rule,’” he said.
Worthy himself likes the idea.
“A lot of kids come up to me and say, ’You got to slow down with your talking, we don’t understand what you’re saying,’” he told SN&R. “That’s actually why I need more time, because I can’t get everything in there. In Roseville, you get five minutes!”
At another recent council meeting, a woman taps Worthy on the shoulder. “Early bird,” she says. He looks up, smiles, then continues shuffling through a notebook while seated in an aisle seat of the second row. It’s more than a half-hour before the meeting’s start.
Tonight, there are few commenters, likely because there’s but one agenda item, an update on the Sacramento Kings situation. One praises the mayor and even sings, another rants about crack in Oak Park. And then there’s Worthy, blasting council over the prospect of using public money for private development.
That’s right: “Pimping the people.”
“Understand a pimp,” Worthy begins after the meeting, explaining his catchphrase. “What does a pimp do? Wait on his money. And that’s what the political people do. Wait on their money. They’re not doing anything.”
Is this why, ostensibly, there are fewer people interested in making public comments?
Powell, an on-off figure at council meetings for years, concedes that the public is seemingly less engaged with local government. “Yes, I think that’s true.
“But I think part of it is that people get discouraged when they go down to council and they have 120 seconds to make their case.”
Would an extra minute make a difference?