At the end of August, the City of Irvine took another step into that digital wonderland that is the 21st century and instituted eComment, an online portal that allows residents to engage with the city. Put simply, eComment lets residents tell the Irvine City Council what they think of official agenda items without actually having to drive down to City Hall and taking a turn at the speaker’s lectern.
“We understand that between work, school, and family commitments, our citizens and community members cannot always attend City Council and Orange County Great Park Board meetings,” said Mayor Christina Shea in an Aug. 29 Irvine press release. “In keeping with the City of Irvine’s Sunshine Ordinance, we want to make it easier for constituents to be able to share their comments with us even if they cannot be present. I am excited about the opportunity to increase citizen participation in our local government through this new feature.”
Let’s think this through a moment. The City of Irvine has set up a system so that residents–or anyone, really–can, with a few keystrokes, send a comment to Mayor Shea or anyone on the City Council.
Have city officials been on the internet lately? Have they looked at the comments section of, I don’t know, this very publication? Have they seen what passes for “comment?” And that’s just open forum comments–if you really want an interesting conversation, ask any woman you know who’s ever expressed any kind of opinion online how many dick pics she’s gotten.
“EComments will be subject to all First Amendment rights,” Irvine City Clerk Molly Perry told me when I asked what the city would do with anything it receives that’s clearly inappropriate–be it racist, sexual or just plain gross. “We’re respectful of the First Amendment.”
Now Irvine isn’t the first city to institute the eComment feature–for many cities, it’s a regular part of their website. One such city is Rancho Santa Margarita, which has been using eComment for at least the last five years, according to Amy Diaz, who took over as that city’s Clerk in November 2014.
“We examine all eComments received and provide them to the City Council,” Diaz told me. “During the City Council meeting, the Mayor announces that the City Council has received an eComment, provides the name of the person who submitted the eComment, and provides the general topic of the eComment.”
Diaz added that in her time as Clerk, the city hasn’t received any inappropriate (either written or photographic) comments through eComment.
Perry said Irvine hasn’t instituted any policy in regards to eComment, but the City of Long Beach has. It states that any comments that are “profane,” promote “discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, age, religion, gender, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, national origin, physical or mental disability or sexual orientation” or contain “sexual content or links to sexual content” are subject to removal. The policy adds that “the City of Long Beach reserves the right to delete submissions that contain vulgar language, personal attacks of any kind, or offensive comments that target or disparage any ethnic, racial, or religious group.”
Perry wouldn’t talk to me directly about what the City of Irvine would do if it receives comments of the nature described in the City of Long Beach’s policy. But when I asked her what the city would do with eComments in general, her answer was immediate: “EComments are a permanent part of the public record.”
And that means any and all eComments submitted to the City of Irvine are subject to the California Pubic–er, Public–Records Act.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.