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