My View II: Mayor to Address Length of Council Meetings?



Mayor Dan Wolk this week told the Vanguard, “I’ve decided to implement the monthly ‘ceremonial’ meeting. Part of an effort to implement all these procedural changes we’ve talked about.”

He later added that he is also looking to reduce items on the agenda, more strictly enforce “Rosenberg’s Rules of Order,” dedicate a meeting to ceremonial items, as stated, and he is going to try comment cards.

The Vanguard has long looked at council meetings – concerned over the public policy implications of making critical decisions late at night when councilmembers are tired and fatigued, the interested public has gone home, and mistakes can be made.

While much has been made about the amount of deliberation, the two biggest problems appear to be agenda setting with too many weighty items on a given agenda and the misuse of prime time with ceremonies.

As we wrote in June of 2010: “When people complain about the length of time that council meetings take, when they complain about the fact that at times, key decisions that are supposed to be made in the public light, are instead made in the wee hours of the morning by weary councilmembers who probably and rightly are exhausted and only want to go home.  And yet for the years I have covered the council, this is the way we have done business.

“It does not have to be this way.  The sad thing is that, while we talk about limiting discussions and deliberations, the answers have less to do with that than proper meeting and agenda management.

“The first solution would be to eliminate public presentations at regular council meetings.  How often are lengthy council meetings begun with a presentation and awards ceremony that take 30 minutes, followed by a break for refreshments.  At times, that eats as much as 45 minutes of prime council meeting time.  And toward what end?  We give people the recognition they deserve.  However, we could do that more efficiently if we had a separate meeting once a month to acknowledge community work, they could assemble for an hour or two, have refreshments and then the public and the council could go home.

“But while that is a consistent source of annoyance to people who attempt to cover council meetings or attend them, that is not the meat and potatoes of the problem.  The biggest problem is that we simply try to do too much in a given meeting.”

This is not the first time Dan Wolk has attempted to address this issue either. In the summer of 2012, Dan Wolk and Brett Lee came up with a reasonable six-point plan to address some of these concerns.

At that time their list included three times per month meetings, periodic round table meetings which would allow the council to have more “pre-discussions,” in-meeting time hurdles, limiting each meeting to one major item, limiting staff presentations, and stricter enforcement of the rules of order.

While these ideas were discussed, a huge problem was that, with five working members of council, two of whom were running for higher office, it was difficult to find two meeting nights a month, let alone three.

I’m of the belief that councilmembers should have all Tuesdays automatically blocked off on their calendar, but then again, I would prefer we pay councilmembers a real salary so that they do not have to have a day job.

Back in February 2012, Kemble Pope, then the newly-hired CEO of the Davis Chamber of Commerce, made suggestions for better governance.

First he proposed a “ten day rule for good governance,” in which the city council would receive all staff reports and supporting documents ten calendar days prior [to] the council meeting.

The second proposal would be to have the council meet only twice per month and adjourn no later than 11 pm.

It is worth noting that, while the council would actually implement a rule for Thursday posting of agenda items, the city most often has failed to deliver. With the rotating off-days on Friday, the city will deliver the agenda on Thursday only if it has Friday off and often times these are not full agenda items.

So here would be our suggestions at this time.

First, the city should have the entire agenda item – staff report and all – to the public and council by the end of business on Thursday. Any item that is not ready by Thursday at 5 pm should be held off until the next meeting, unless it is a time-sensitive issue.

Second, we should have a limitation of one major issue per agenda, unless there are urgency items that require action by a deadline.

In both of these two items, a policy that requires a 4/5ths vote for an exception might be implemented.

Third, the council should implement a bimonthly ceremonial night. This could be a big to-do with the council presenting awards and allowing businesses to sponsor refreshments and food as part of the evening’s festivities. All proclamations and awards would take place on these evenings.

The advantage here is that it would free up about 30 minutes of prime time energy for the weighty issues at the other meetings.

Fourth, council meetings should start at 6:30. Closed session items not completed by 6:25 should automatically carry over until after the regular meeting.

Fifth, the issue of comment cards is somewhat thorny. The one reason I start to favor comment cards is that some commenters like to play a little game where they wait until the end before getting up in hopes of getting in the last word. Requiring comment cards to speak might eliminate that game.

Ironically, I’m not sure that this is an optimal strategy as council’s attention to public comments may actually wane rather than improve as time goes on.

Sixth, rules of order do not appear to be the biggest problem. Several years ago meetings were far more contentious and there was a constant battle over speaking time. That is not the case anymore.

Seventh, in light of what happened with the special meeting a few weeks ago, it might be helpful if all meeting agendas were emailed regularly to the city’s media list.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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15 thoughts on “My View II: Mayor to Address Length of Council Meetings?”

  1. Anon

    The problem with comment cards is that it does not allow for members of the public to address something another member of the public has just said in public comment. Also, sometimes it is important to listen to the staff presentations first to determine whether to make public comment or not, but if you failed to fill out a card before the presentation, you’re stuck without an opportunity to speak. And sometimes a member of the public arrives late or does not think of something until the last minute, but because they failed to fill out a comment card, they cannot comment. Comment cards, IMO, are a way of stifling public comment, albeit unintentionally.

    Secondly, Rosenberg’s rules of order allow the Mayor to not only limit public comment time per person if necessary, but also time of each City Council member. There have been instances when the City Council has “talked to death” a subject. I know it is a difficult thing to do, but it might be helpful to occasionally encourage fellow City Council members to move the discussion along if it is taking too long to get to the point of taking a vote. From what I have seen, and I have attended many City Council meetings, it is generally not public comment that takes up that much time unless it is a particularly controversial issue.

    And finally, if the City Council would stick to an agenda of important concerns, rather than entertain every issue a commission can dream up, that would be helpful too. How much time was wasted on issues not within the City Council’s purview (such as some silly advisory vote on a national controversy), or inordinate amounts of time were spent on fairly unimportant issues in the scheme of things (plastic bag ban, wood burning smoke ordinance), etc. while issues like the budget were given much less consideration. Serious issues of great import should be put first on the agenda.

  2. Tia Will

    I am very glad that Mayor Wolk is planning on implementing changes to the structure of city council meetings.
    I also favor the consolidation of ceremonial items into a separate meeting, limiting major items to one per meeting except for time critical issues ,and encouragement to keep staff and council member comments concise and to the point ( which I also believe has improved over the past few years).
    I share Anon’s concerns about the use of comment cards. Having seem how this works at the Board of Supervisors, I feel that whether deliberately or inadvertently, it does have a tendency to stifle public comments. Although I think some may see this as beneficial, I am very much of the opinion that public comments provide valuable input to city council members who may be considering issues well outside their area of expertise.

    1. Davis Progressive

      i think the last time they talked about comment cards, there was an uproar and it got shot down. the big thing that comment cards does is ends the showdown at the end – which is annoying and largely unfair.

      1. Anon

        What exactly is “unfair” about the “showdown at the end”? Everyone has a chance to speak that wants to. If some want to jockey for last position, so what? With comment cards, some will not be able to speak, because they were not able to, forgot to, or didn’t care to fill out a comment card. I would prefer to err on the side that encourages robust public comment.

        1. Davis Progressive

          the purpose of public comment is to convey the views of members of the public to the city council. by trying to game the system, you are attempting to manipulate the council.

          i’m all for robust public comment, i’m not for cheap parlor tricks to insure that you get the last word.

          1. Davis Progressive

            the school board goes through their cards by the way and then asks if there are any additional commenters.

          2. John

            DP, the “showdown at the end” is a dance that has almost no meaning. Any person wh truly wants to affect a council decision who waits until public comment at the council meeting has botched their timing, because the council members will all have read the staff report and any written or electronic citizen submissions long before they enter Council Chambers on Tuesday night. Unless the public comment is truly earth shattering, and rarely is it, then public comment is in essence a form of Kabuki Theater that makes the commenter feel good, but really doesn’t affect the decision itself.

  3. Mr. Toad

    No. Comment cards limit public debate and that is their function. You can’t be there for one item and then another item comes up and just get up and put your two cents in. You need to fill out the card. I foresee the usual suspects sitting there with a stack of cards and filling them out as the agenda progresses.

  4. anonymous

    Dan Wolk is showing leadership by implementing a ceremonial meeting. Kudos to Brett Lee as well for proposing a plan in 2012 on this issue–and to David Greenwald for recognizing this as an important issue.

    How many members of the public can afford to sit through unnecessarily lengthy meetings? The most efficient organizations recognize that time is a valuable resource. Thanks to Wolk and Lee for pointing us in a better direction.

  5. John

    The Mayor has my full support for his proposed changes.

    I do have on additional suggested change. For the monthly ceremonial meeting I would have a Consent Calendar item before the ceremonial presentations. Ideally staff would consolidate all consent items into one monthly aggregation, which would be one simple vote. If a council member has significant concerns about a consent item he/she asks to have it pulled from the aggregate vote and it is then scheduled for discussion at one of the upcoming regular meetings. No discussion of pulled items on the ceremonial presentation night. A pulled consent item becomes one of the “minor” agenda items of the council meeting where it is discussed.

    Since consent items would only be voted on once a month, the city manager would keep a running list of the planned consent items with their attendant staff report, and if a council member feels (as they often do) that the staff report on the consent item needs clarification or more information they will notify the city manager, and the city manager will then notify the staff to provide an augmented staff report that both notes the council member’s concerns and addresses them. That way citizens, council and staff would have an audit trail of any evolution of consent items.

    The above suggestion would eliminate the half hour (frequently more) that the Consent Calendar takes in the current meetings.

  6. SODA

    John, Good ideas however would you then allow public comment on the consent items during the ceremonial meeting? Sometimes public comment on consent items causes the CC to pull the item which I think is a good process.

    1. John

      Yes SODA that would make sense. No public comment on pulled items though. Like the procedure for regular agenda items which restricts comment during the item to the item, public comment for non-pulled consent items would be restricted to non-pulled consent items. The pulled consent items would never have made it to the final calendar. The city manager or mayor would announce the pulled items prior to the mayor opening public comment.

  7. SODA

    That doesn’t seem too fair; if I see an item I want to comment on, on the consent agenda and go down to the ceremonial mtg ready to comment in public comment, only to see THEN that it has been pulled for another mtg, I cannot speak then ?

    1. John

      Ideally that would never happen. The agenda published on the City website on Friday for the ceremonial meeting the following Tuesday would not include any consent items that the Councilmembers want to pull, so the public would only see those items that are expected to sail through on Tuesday unopposed.

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