Sunday Commentary: Changing the Structure of Public Comment

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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


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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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32 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Changing the Structure of Public Comment”

  1. Howard P

    Am thinking the simplest way to control the time spent on Public Comment is to end the televising of it, streaming it, recording it electronically… let folk speak their piece to the CC, and let it go at that… reporters and CC will get the drift, and the main points.

    Too many play to the camera…

    1. Alan Miller

      Am thinking the simplest way to control the time spent on Public Comment is to end the televising of it, streaming it, recording it electronically…

      That was the problem with the OJ trial — though I get your point, doubt it would work for CC meetings.

  2. John Hobbs

    “Too many play to the camera…”

    So you toss out access and transparency because you begrudge someone a little media exposure?

    I don’t think I’d make that trade.

  3. Tia Will

    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.”

    I agree with efforts to use time efficiently. The above suggestion would only work on items which occur, or are deliberately scheduled over two or more meetings with the express understanding that these material would be thoroughly reviewed before the next meeting. The public would also have to have some basic trust that each council member would take the time and energy to read these materials with an open mind in the interim. At this point in time, I am unsure we can rely on that process.

    1. Matt Williams

      Tia said . . . “The above suggestion would only work on items which occur, or are deliberately scheduled over two or more meetings with the express understanding that these material would be thoroughly reviewed before the next meeting.”

      Tia makes a good point, and another way to address it is to improve the efficiency and timeliness of the work staff does in presenting materials for Council and public review on items scheduled in future Council meetings.  Specifically, change the public posting requirement for Council meeting materials from the current 72 hours (3 days) to 240 hours (10 days).  Such a change would mean staff needs to be more organized and efficient in its efforts.  However, once they made the one-time workload shift of 7 days, things would return to the same rhythm … just 7 days earlier than before. The old expression over the Administrative Assistant’s desk comes to mind … “Your failure to plan does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

      That would mean the public would have more time to review the staff report materials and submit written/electronic comments to the Council members for their review and deliberation.  As it currently is, when was the last time that you can remember a Council member changing their discussion of an item based on a public comment?  To all intents and purposes Council deliberations are a form of kabuki theater … activity/drama carried out in real life in a predictable or stylized fashion.  More often than not Council meetings, and especially the process of hearing public comment create the appearance of conflict or of an uncertain outcome, when in fact the players on the stage have already determined the outcome beforehand. Wikipedia uses the example of Tom Brokaw using the term “kabuki theater” to describe the Democratic Party and Republican Party political conventions, which say they are competitive contests to nominate presidential candidates, but in reality the actual presidential nominees are known well beforehand.

      1. David Greenwald

        “As it currently is, when was the last time that you can remember a Council member changing their discussion of an item based on a public comment?”

        That would be difficult to measure given the order of operations.  I know there have been times when the public has raised points that the council has specifically addressed.  I don’t know that I have a way to recall specific examples at this time, but my observation over the years is that it happens.

        1. Richard McCann

          But at Matt points out, it happens infrequently enough that you have trouble recalling a specific instance. In my own experience over decades of public agency appearances, it’s simply too late to affect the outcome by the time the hearing occurs unless the agency specifically sets up a structured debate forum. All of the impacts that might change decisions occur in written comments. It’s much easier for officials to digest them in writing with time to deliberate. The lack of discourse allowed between a speaker and the Council further erodes this deliberative process.

          So I agree with Matt that the materials should be released 10 days before, and that the public be given a deadline to submit comments of 3 days before the meeting. (I could envision a Churchillian word limit to ensure that the comments get read.)

        2. David Greenwald

          I think you have It right- generally speaking it is too late in the process to affect the outcome.  I think it’s better to send emails early.  I know that the council reads the emails and it has some impact because I’m always hearing from council members saying I got a lot of emails on this, or I haven’t gotten many at all.

  4. Jim Hoch

    The other option is to give people a fixed amount of time, 90-120 seconds sounds good up to 45 minutes, and prioritize Davis residents and those that have not addressed the council recently.

    Therefore on nights when there is a lot of comment travelers, and frequent flyers get pushed to the back.

    I am against the “spokespeople” idea as it leads to the ego inflation of self appointed “activists”. If they want a seat at the table they should stand for election.

    1. Mark West

      I am against the “spokespeople” idea as it leads to the ego inflation of self appointed “activists”. If they want a seat at the table they should stand for election.

      Yes

    2. Howard P

      So, you’re OK with the “comment card” approach, so we’d know if folk are residents, and/or “frequent fliers” so folk can be prioritized appropriately?

      Just asking, as I see it as an annoyance, but see no ‘fatal flaw’ in using the “comment card” approach…

    3. Richard McCann

      So if a spokesperson is defeated in an election, that person is no longer allowed a voice in City policy? That the only group voice allowed is that of the majority?

      1. Jim Hoch

        “that person is no longer allowed a voice in City policy”

        They will have the same voice as any other citizen. The principle is that we have elected officials, residents, and “all others”. The spokesperson concept is an attempt to elevate certain self-appointed people who would have rights and privileges exceeding that of the person who lives in the house next door.

      2. Howard P

        Other than CC members, am not aware of any “elected” spokespersons… and I hope that CC members are not “spokespersons” for any special group…

        Funny… a few here suggest/imply that City staff (even, or perhaps particularly, those who live in Davis) ‘should have no voice’ in forming City policy…

  5. Tia Will

    I am against the “spokespeople” idea”

    Not taking a stand on this one way or the other. Just pointing out pros and cons. Some people are much better at public speaking than others. If a group feels that one individual can articulate their position more clearly and concisely, I am not sure I would want to prohibit that.

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        That’s how it works now. One person can get up there with five others and speak for five minutes. I’m just suggesting that get expanded.

        1. Howard P

          If it takes more than 5 (even 3) minutes to get your point across, I think it would be better to put it in writing, which is “written communications” and is in the record…

          Unless, of course, you seek “air time” to feed your ego…

          Or, if you believe the CC doesn’t read and consider all materials… if that is true, we have a great problem!

          If a CC member doesn’t “doesn’t read and consider all materials”, consistently, would recommend “recall”
           

    1. Jim Hoch

      “groups” have no standing in front of the council. If people want to comment that is what the time is for. It’s not a demonstration of rhetorical prowess. Anyone who is unsure should write what they want to say and read the card.

      1. Howard P

        Fine, but response would have been better directed to Tia, not me… my question was directed to her comment…  but, “thank you for your input”…

        1. Howard P

          Wow… apparently the chain of comments can be changed… not what I was told yesterday…

          Moderator, feel perfectly free to delete my 10:19 post and this one… appears to be no point to keeping them…

          [moderator: no, it changes itself based, apparently, on a certain number of replies. I can’t control it.]

        2. Howard P

          But, can you delete my posts, as they are no longer pertinent, or does that that figure into the AI thing you alluded to?

          “it changes itself based, apparently, on a certain number of replies. I can’t control it.”

          Kinda scary if you can’t control “it”, and not sure how “it” ‘works’…

          [moderator: when we first went to this blog site, you may recall that replies got squeezed down narrower and narrower until the page became unreadable. The website provider implemented a fix whereby that stops happening after a certain number of replies to those who comment the regular way. Those of us with backdoor access can still reply directly underneath the previous comment, so sometimes you see that happen. I could probably go in to the toolchest and figure it all out, but that’s not part of my job description here. Moving posts is also not something I do.]

  6. Alan Miller

    Public comment should be kept basically as is.

    Three minutes is necessary for some comments.  Simply having people get up and “agree” or “disagree” in the name of “efficiency” is meaningless.  If what is said by commenters need not be weighed with any more strength than any other input, standing up to basically “vote” should have meaning at all.

    The two-minute Wolk era is simply too short.  Not for all comments, for some.  The Robb Davis 3-2-1 method worked well.  If going for less then 3 as a max, go for 2 1/2.

    The 45-minute time period for public comment may sound good, but I doubt it will work as intended.  The times that public comment gets extended are usually for contentious community issues.  So a bunch of people come, and now they are jockying for a spot in the front of the line so they don’t have to come back at 9, 10, 11, midnight — who knows when?  So the more aggressive get heard, and others don’t — or have to come back in 1 or 2 weeks, and maybe not get heard in the beginning then either.  I don’t see how that works.

    Comment cards — maybe OK, but what does it solve?  So if you are out-of-town, you don’t get heard?  I don’t think it works that way.  I speak in front of Sac City Council and they have comment cards and I write down I’m not a Sac resident and they let me speak.  I work there, spend money there, use their infrastructure.

    Perhaps if there is going to be a limit at the beginning, people could sign up on line for priority speaking — and if they don’t show, no big deal, on to the next.

    And who is asking?  People who sit through City Council meetings.  So we hear about “the usual suspects” and people who repeat, or can’t speak well.  But it isn’t about you.   It’s about the public having the right to be heard.  And some of the public are annoying.  Live with it.

    Bottom line, any fix is probably going to be worse than the problem.

    1. Howard P

      people could sign up on line for priority speaking

      Thinking about it, am opposed to that… leaves out folk not “net-savvy”… discriminatory/exclusionary…

      Just my opinion…

      Main thing, “if it ain’t broke, why fix it”, which I think was the gist of your post, Alan…

      1. Alan Miller

        leaves out folk not “net-savvy”…

        That occurred to me, and is probably a valid argument.  I was thinking it gave people a chance to sign up so they would know they had made it to early speaking.  But true, those without net access would have a disadvantage.

        1. Howard P

          And, actually had little problem with the “sign-up” part, the “priority” thing was the “stickler”… the thought someone could be “aced-out”, eliminated from those speaking…

          We’re pretty much saying the same things… (on this topic, at least)

          Still leaning heavily towards, “if it ain’t broke…” concept…

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