My View: Slow Down on Reducing Public Comment

Sham Goyal exhorts the audience to rise
Sham Goyal exhorts the audience to rise

It was a long night on Tuesday to be sure, and at times frustrating to those who had to stay past midnight.  But after one regular council meeting this term, under unusual circumstances, it does not make sense to change the rules.

In my view, extraordinary occurrences shouldn’t necessitate rule changes – they should inspire rule exceptions when necessary.  After the long item on Gandhi, several councilmembers wanted to revisit the newly enshrined rule about the three-minute public comment.  For most of the Vanguard’s time covering the city council, public comment has been three minutes and that length has generally worked well.

On a typical day, there are perhaps five to ten public commenters.  That means that the difference between two and three minutes is simply five to ten minutes of total council time.  That is negligible, and if council really wants to speed up the meetings, they could eliminate staff presentations and simply jump into questions.

Mayor Robb Davis back in July proposed a modification with public comments at two and a half minutes, but a host of community members, myself included, stepped up to press for continuing the public comments at three minutes.  However, I proposed that the mayor have the discretion and ability to reduce the comment period down to two minutes when there were large groups of people wanting to speak.

Mayor Davis headed into the Gandhi discussion knowing that there were volumes of people wanting to speak, but he chose to keep comments at three minutes.  Was that the wrong move?  Hard to know.  My inclination is that people wanted to have their say and that if that meant the meeting went an extra hour, at least people got their say.

But there are alternative models that the council can and should consider.

The first is the one I just presented.  Any time that the number of public commenters exceeds 20, you simply reduce the time from three to two minutes.  At that point you are saving at least twenty minutes through the reduction of time.  In my experience, any time you get a lot of public commenters, the comments quickly start getting repetitive.

That leads me to a second possible alternative model that was actually employed twice on Tuesday.  First, Colin Walsh, on the issue of Russell Fields, at one point had those in the audience who were there for that issue stand up and demonstrate to the council that there were a large number of people opposed to developing Russell and Howard Fields – saving the council time by not all coming up to speak.

Sham Goyal attempted to do the same thing later by demonstrating that the folks in town from Davis were 98 percent in favor of the Gandhi statue in Central Park.  As it turned out, many wanted to speak for themselves, but imagine if both sides had had their members stand up, show their numbers and then only five people on each side spoke.

I think this is a model that the council should explore, as it saves time, still allows for the council to get important information, and also allows the council to understand the sentiment in the room.

There is a third model that has been proposed –Rosenberg’s model – where you allow people who will only speak for one minute to go first, then two minutes and then three minutes.  The idea there is that people who want to leave early can do so by speaking for a shorter period of time.

I am not a huge believer that this will save time.  On Tuesday, the room remained full until the end and, in fact, people remained in the parking lot discussing what had occurred.

Finally, there is really nothing to prevent the mayor from implementing multiple approaches.  The point I think that should be made here is that the number of times you have these types of meetings is rare.  You will have some meetings when a major land use issue comes forward that affects people and, as we have seen in the past with the Muslim-Israeli debate in 2009, when an international or national issue comes forward that divides the community.

Changing your policies to account for rare events does not make sense.  Most of the time, we are best served by three-minute public comment time limits.  The rare times when there are massive amounts of commenters, we can and should have the flexibility to adapt the time period.

—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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36 Comments

  1. PhillipColeman

    ”  . . .  and if council really wants to speed up the meetings – they could eliminate staff presentations and simply jump into questions.”

    This topic has been discussed innumerable times and the number will never cease. A staff report can be effectively summarized in two pages, properly prepared and edited. Appendices can be attached for precise explanations of specific points–which most people won’t read anyway except the designated nitpicker. But it’s there. A staff person is not necessarily also a skilled writer, Indeed, usually the opposite is the case. Council members should give a letter-grade to the quality of a written staff report and have it delivered to the City Manager for review and follow-up.

    The majority of Councilpersons don’t read written staff reports exceeding five pages. They skim it, or don’t read it at all. Why should they read staff reports if the staff person is going to say everything again orally? Staff reports should be more described as “written speeches.”

    Similarly, if speakers can’t make their points in two minutes orally, they can submit their argument in written form, which the Council will probably never read. But it’s there.

    The biggest issues with public comments–and it defies any control measures–is that contentious issues produce a handful people who love the sound of their own voice. They are compulsively moved to speak (compulsively is meant in clinical context of “obsessive/compulsive”). One obsessive/compulsive personality is a novelty, two is endurable, seven saying the same thing is maddening, but we call it democracy.

    Compounding the matter is journalists, reporters, and the like adore prolonged meetings with a pack-filled room and and a parade of monotonous speakers. Their resultant stories don’t dwell on substance because there’s so little of it. But much is written (with an equal level of monotony) on the theater setting of the event. Somehow we’ve interpreted representative government being effectively shown by repetition and numbers, never substance.

     

    1. Alan Miller

      contentious issues produce a handful people who love the sound of their own voice. They are compulsively moved to speak (compulsively is meant in clinical context of “obsessive/compulsive”).

      I resemble that remark.

    2. hpierce

      Think you are missing the point… am thinking David and others see no reason for staff… the public and the council/commissions should make all policy decisions and other actions without the nuisance of having staff prepare analyses nor recommendations (or at least presenting those in a public forum)… the staff who remain would only be charged with carrying out the “will of the people”… an interesting “model”… would save tons of money…

        1. hpierce

          Your words, saying staff presentations could be deleted… note my parenthetical comment @ 8:43, and your words,

           if council really wants to speed up the meetings, they could eliminate staff presentations and simply jump into questions.

          Did I parse your words wrong?

  2. Misanthrop

    It wasn’t the comment period that was the problem. It was the motion to reconsider that re-opened it  to comment. Robb said a council meeting wasn’t the correct forum for what he hoped the community would get out of it but then went on to provide a forum that he knew was ill suited to achieving his goals.  He might have let some steam out of the kettle but did so at the expense of the local Indian community and much to the embarrassment of the entire community both regionally and internationally. The headline “Is Davis too good for Ghandi” will now go along with images of Pike spraying non-violent college students practicing the kind of protest that Gandhi taught as two conflicting memes of this community. Those students showed the power of Gandhi’s teachings and eventually took down those who tried to suppress dissent with brutality. They showed Gandhi’s teaching at its best.

    The weirdest thing was at the end where Robb and Brett voted for additional delay as if a delay would somehow make things better. Even if giving people a chance to vent was the right thing to do voting to prolong this grievance farce was inexplicable.

    1. Tia Will

      Misanthrop

      much to the embarrassment of the entire community both regionally and internationally.”

      I think that we sometimes put too much stock in how others think of us. Have we become so sensitive that we need care  that people who may never actually come to our community make brief jibes about a public discussion in a small city in California ?  Can we not appreciate the willingness of our population to speak their mind in public and the willingness of our public officials to hear them out without worrying about what someone in another city, state, or county may find odd or amusing. Since when has image become so much more important than our actual experience that we are willing to alter the latter to change the former ?  As a member of this community, I am not the least bit embarrassed about the events of the council meeting

  3. Marina Kalugin

    the meeting participants weren’t there to watch the sun go up?  it appears the different factions didn’t get enough folks there to debate their sides enough.

    Though I wasn’t able to attend, and though it didn’t seem like a topic which would interest me enough to show up, I must say that I have learned a lot from the various media articles and the many comments on the DV.

    Not sure I have learned enough yet to choose a side,

    but I am sure that many, many people who  would never  have given this topic another thought before this meeting may have learned some things.

    If that is the case, then the time was certainly spent wisely….

     

  4. Barack Palin

    I sometimes look at the council member’s faces when the endless stream of commenters are droning on and on.  They have that stoic face of I’m looking at you but not really listening.

  5. Alan Miller

    I was disturbed that at the end of a particularly long and contentious meeting, believe it or not, not the norm, and when the council was frustrated and exhausted, the council decides they have to revisit public comment, just a couple of meeting into Robb’s mayoral term.

    I wondered what happened to 2 1/2 minutes.  I suggested this to Robb, and he said he already was going to go with that.  So it was DG who pooched that (with others).  Two minutes isn’t quite long enough.  Three minutes is too long.  2 1/2 minutes is just right.  By my estimation the meeting would have ended 20-25 minutes earlier last Tuesday.  That makes a difference as you approach midnight.

    Go with it!

    1. Grok

       just a couple of meeting into Robb’s mayoral term.

      This was the very first meeting with the Mayor’s new rules that restored the 3 minute comment period. (3 minutes was the norm before Mayor Wolk)

      i would think they could at least give it a couple more meetings to see how it goes.

       

  6. Marina Kalugin

    so some of the younger folks on here, and that likely includes most commenting,   don’t quite get the old tactics… Dave Rosenberg was a friend and  CC member when the Ricci farm issue was fist on the agenda….many of us learned a lot and some of our friends from those days, like Eileen, still know a lot of the methods….

    that is why those like many on the DV thought that A on Nishi would pass, while those of us who understand how things work knew that it wouldn’t….ask the kids who tried to go door to door on my street what happened at our house and the many neighbors who border the Ricci property   🙂

    one of the tactics of the city staff over the years is to wait until the meeting is about to start to even release the agenda or what the staff recommends… and thus many of us would show up at the beginning and get the phone tree going…later it was email or text….if there were not enough folks we recognized, we would get the word out.

    the idea is numbers are the most important…and I see the folks on the Gandhi versus the Sikhs have learned the lesson well.

     

    1. Davis Progressive

      “that is why those like many on the DV thought that A on Nishi would pass, while those of us who understand how things work knew that it wouldn’t”

      give me a break, 600 vote difference – it’s called too close to call

    2. Alan Miller

      ask the kids who tried to go door to door on my street what happened at our house

      Names and phone numbers please!  I want to know what happened at your house . . . um, when? what? why? who? that?

  7. Eric Gelber

    I’ve watched my share of public hearings in the Legislature and have seen the process handled in many ways. There’s no perfect solution. Dave Rosenberg’s suggestion, for example, could impact people who can’t stay to the end because of transportation, chid care, or health issues but may be among those most directly impacted by a decision and shouldn’t have their time restricted.

    Another method is to have a small number of designated individuals who are primary spokespersons for each side speak first and be allotted, say, 3 minutes each. Then, other speakers would be allotted a shorter time and/or urged not to reiterate, or to simply  state their agreement with, what had already been said.

    Bottom line is, though, public input is a primary purpose of a public hearing. Democracy can be time-consuming.

  8. Marina Kalugin

    of course, the DV and the owner DG and many of the younger ones who spend many hours on this DV site….have a lot to learn yet…

    good thing that I am retiring as I will now have way more time to attend meetings again…I kinda got out of the loop in the last 15 years or so….when I became a manager and my sons left for university…

    but I used to go to the many planning commission meetings, the school board, not to mention many a city council meeting…

    some of you may be thankful that I am doing lots of traveling once I retire … so I will miss some of the meetings…

    but others who are still around and knew me from the Ricci/Woodridge days…GATE and PACE and of measure J and R and the failed not needed development that old pal Mike Corbettt was proposing next to the Cannery, the pink algebra book versus the traditional algebra book, and so many other causes so near and dear to my heart, and so many other local agendas will  be glad I will have more time to spend and now I also have more funds to donate   🙂

    Marina Kalugin (aka Marina Rumiansev)…

     

     

  9. Jim Frame

    contentious issues produce a handful people who love the sound of their own voice…One obsessive/compulsive personality is a novelty

    This extends to Vanguard comments as well, except that the one obsessive/compulsive personality is no longer a novelty.

     

  10. Grok

    here is a break down of speakers by topic and time from the Public comments section of the 8/30 Council Meeting.

    1:50 Russell Fields

    3:00 Road Conditions

    3:00 Chancellor

    2:10 Yolo Land Trust

    0:50 Gandhi Statue

    2:10 Russell Fields

    2:33 Russell Fields

    2:00 Russell Fields

    2:03 Russell Fields

    1:43 Russell Fields

    1:50 Russell Fields

    2:45 Russell Fields

    1:09 Russell Fields

    3:04 Gandhi Statue

    3:02 Russell Fields

    0:52 Dakota Pipeline

    3:08 Dakota Pipeline

    1:37 Dakota Pipeline

    1:10 Gandhi Statue

    1:32 Gandhi Statue

    1:36 General Plan

     

    1. Grok

      there were 21 speakers

      11 completed their comments in under 2 minutes.

      3 more  completed their comments under 2:30

      1  completed their comment at just barely over 2:30

      1  spoke for 2:45

      5  used all 3 minutes

      1. Grok

        Based on this public comments section at this particular council meeting I conclude that there is not a pattern of speakers extending their comments to 3 minutes unnecessarily.

        Further, rewatching this section of public comments, it is my opinion that commenters (with few exceptions) used  their time judiciously and kept comments short and informative with little repetition between speakers.

        Thus I conclude there is no need to shorten public comments time over all.

  11. Eileen Samitz

    I appreciate this article by the Vanguard and completely agree. I also appreciate the breakdown by Grok of the time used by the public in the public comments section.

    I am surprised to see these issues revisited so soon considering the ground rules were just brought forward just a few weeks ago by our new mayor in a very transparent and responsible way. Indeed, this was the very first meeting under Mayor Davis’s Rules with the restored 3- minute public comment limit. When Mayor Davis proposed the new council rules he understood that the (former) Mayor Wolk 2-minute rule was not working for more controversial issues as exemplified by how many speakers were regularly being cut off. The Mayor and the Council then heard the public testimony in support of restoring the 3-minute speaking time that existed for decades prior to the Wolk rules. The council agreed and restored the 3-minute comment period.

    I strongly support the 3-minute rule because it allows speakers enough time to explain their comment and offer solutions on issues of concern as well. Further, allowing fair public comment is one of the main reasons for having the Community Chambers. Our taxpayer dollars pay to staff and televise this meeting to be kept apprised of City issues, and to have a fair and open forum to hear the concerns and comments of our community members. The public comment period of the City Council meeting is an opportunity for the all members of the Council together to hear directly from the community, and for the community to hear concerns of their fellow community members.

    The Russell fields group that spoke on August 30th, if anything, was a model of how public comment should occur. With over 50 supporters in attendance only about 10 spoke and they were not repetitious and respected the time limit.

    The Gandhi statue issue on the agenda at that same Council meeting on other hand was as an exception to the norm in that it brought extensive heated comments from some residents but also from a number of non-Davis residents. This extended the time to hear the commenters. Although I can understand the frustration that the Council may have felt, this frustration should not be “taken out” on our community’s public comment policy.
    Public comment is an important and democratic part of our community’s ability to communicate with the City, which should be fair and adequate to allow the community to explain their concerns and offer solutions. The traditional 3-minute public comment allotment time should not relapse into being reduced to 2 minutes as it was during the last mayor’s tenure. It did not work then for the public, and it will not work now.

    There are other options available to the mayor when faced with large numbers of commenters if and when that situation occurs. For example, the Mayor and Council can opt to use the 1,2, or 3-minute allotment method that Mayor Rosenberg used years ago, allowing folks will less to say to speak first for one minute, then the two minute speakers, and the three minute speakers.
     

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