On Tuesday night, Brett Lee, as he is about to become mayor, laid out some thoughts on changing the structure of the meetings. Like most things in Davis, the talk of change leads to push back and this was no different, with some leading the charge that the council was attempting to stifle public comment.
Brett Lee, responding to some criticism on Facebook, said, “If you watched the council discussion about this on Tuesday night, there was no mention of eliminating public comment at the beginning of meetings. What we did talk about was setting a time limit for the general public comment period at the beginning of the meetings to something like 45 minutes.”
My view on public comment has shifted over the years. Most of my concerns are as follows: for large items, most public comments amount to repetitive “me too” comments that add little information to public discourse but consume a lot of time.
Contrary to the view of some, I don’t get a sense that change is an effort to stifle criticism, but rather to make meetings flow better.
I like the idea of time certainty. In fact, if you read the Brown Act, it is perfectly permissible to designate a set period of time on each agenda for public comment in order to allow the governmental body to focus on the agenda items for the evening.
This year, I have witnessed three separate things that have shaped my emerging thinking on public comments.
Back on February 6, the council listened to public comment on Nishi. The first 15 or so commenters came up and used one minute, sometimes not even that. All they did was basically give their name, and express support for the project and sit down. It was quick and I thought far more effective than taking 45 minutes to issue repetitive comments that the council would have to listen to.
Most of those speakers were students and many were commenting for the first time. At the end of the public comment were the “usual suspects” who all had to have their three minutes to say the same thing they had been saying for months and, in some cases, years.
Second, the Vanguard covered three city council forums extensively. Most of the forums allowed for either 90-second or 120-second responses. What I found as I transcribed these in a painstaking manner, is it was far easier to work with the 90-second answer – most of the 90-second answers were clear, concise and to the point. When they got 120 seconds, their answers did not get better, they got worse. Two minutes was enough time to allow people to ramble and make extraneous comments.
I think we could use the same guide for public comments. Shorter is often better, especially when the council has a lot of business to get through.
One of my thoughts, therefore, is to have each person allowed up to 90 seconds. They can then submit background and supporting documents via email or perhaps the council can create a real time app to allow them to submit additional comments. That would save time while still allowing the public to be heard.
Finally, a few weeks ago I sat through 40 people coming to speak at the school board meeting on swimming pools. The first five or so commenters had interesting comments and insights. After that it was nearly 120 minutes of repetition. It would have been far more effective for one person to talk for 10 minutes and then be able to have the rest of the audience raise their hands to support the comments.
Robb Davis has implemented a five-minute policy that if one person gets five people to come up with them, they can speak for five minutes. But what about a ten-minute policy – on big issues, one spokesperson gets ten minutes to speak and the opportunity to poll the audience to show support for their position. On a contentious issue each side gets their ten minutes and public comment is done quickly and efficiently.
The bottom line here is that we can allow the public to have their say while still running an efficient meeting. We get better governance when the body is able to focus on the key issues and come to a resolution, rather than listening to repetitive public comments go late into the night.
In the modern era, there is no reason why we cannot use technology to our advantage.
A few weeks ago we saw the council tackle a Measure R development project – West Davis Active Adult Community. They did several things well with that. First they had a 9:30 time certainty for ending the first discussion. Second, they did the work in two meetings, meaning they could have staff and the applicant come back with revisions rather than trying to craft revisions on the dais.
The result was a very efficient and effective process.
I think we can incorporate these concepts into an effective but more efficient public comment process: (1) time certainty for ending public comment; (2) short-term public comments with the encouragement that people submit their comments in advance, if they can, via email or an app; and (3) using spokespeople on the big issues and giving them 10 minutes but limiting the rest of the public comment to one-minute or two-minute comments.
The bottom line for me is we can do this without really limiting public input, because much of the public input is inefficient and repetitive.
—David M. Greenwald reporting