My View: Changing the Way We Do Public Comment

Matt Williams speaking during public comment back in April

I used to advocate for the need for three-minute public comments, but what I have found over the years, and for some reason this year in particular, is that three minutes is too long.  For the last several weeks I have been churning this around in my mind – ever since the school board meeting where 40 people got up to speak, the public comment last an hour and a half and at least the last 30 speakers said the exact same thing as the first ten.

I remember lying on my couch on February 6, sick beyond belief, but dutifully watching the council meeting on Nishi.  Public comment was an interesting revelation.  Robb Davis as mayor has implemented an interesting system – he has one minute speakers come up first, then two and finally three.

That night the difference was stark – the first twenty or so speakers were all one minute.  Many were students and others we had never seen before.  They said their piece.  Many of them simply came up to say they were in support and sat down.  I found it very effective.  Then the usual suspects came up – those folks who speak every week – and they had to have their full three minutes.

Personally I found that the one-minute speakers were far more impactful than the usual suspects, who say the same things every week and drone on and on.

This year, during the council elections, I covered three candidate forums extensively.  That generally meant transcribing verbatim each answer.  Some forums had two-minute speaking limits and others had 90-second speaking limits.

I found that as I was transcribing it was far easier to do with the 90 seconds.  Okay, that might be obvious.

But the more interesting thing I found is that the answers were actually better for the 90 seconds than the 120 seconds.  Why?  Well 90 seconds is more than enough time to explain one’s position, but 120 seconds turns out to be too much time, so to fill it they ramble and go off-topic.

This informs the way we should do public commenting, because, for most things, the speaker can convey the message – particularly on a land use project – in 60 to 90 seconds.

Want to vote by numbers – there are ways around that.  You can have each person come up and say I support/oppose the project and do it in less than 60 seconds.  You can have one spokesman have a longer talk and speak for a broader group.

Robb Davis has five people come up in order to get five minutes.  But what about structuring the public comment on an issue with two sides, and have each side select a spokesperson who speaks for ten minutes with a show of hands?

There are other ways to handle this as well.  I was impressed by how efficient the discussion on West Davis Active Adult Community became when Brett Lee put a motion out there to have a time certain for the end of discussion.  They ended within ten minutes of that time and the discussion didn’t feel abbreviated.

A second option is to simply reduce the time for public comments.  There are two ways to do that.  One way is to limit the public comment period to 30 minutes.  You can invite those who wish to speak for a minute up there with the understanding that they lose time but gain certainty.  And you can push the rest of the public comments to the end of the meeting.

A third option is to simply limit public comments to 90 seconds.  There are times when the individual has important details that will take longer – emails and handouts can address that.  Those who need immediate action should be encouraged to submit their comments in advance.  The council could even develop a public comment app to make it easy for the public to submit their comments in real time and in advance of an item.

A fourth option would be to assign spokespeople who will have a designated period of time and be able to poll their audience.  The rest of the speakers would then get a limited time to make additional points.

It is not that I am against public commenters – it is simply that I believe many of the public comments are ineffective if not counterproductive.

Here are some things that I think the governmental body looks for and what are effective comments:

  1. A public commenter who has a specific concern or issue that no one is aware of. I do think that coming to speak is more effective than just writing an email – though if the city or school district were on top of things, it should make no difference.
  2. In a big item they are looking at how many people are speaking, how engaged the audience is, and which side they are on. So they might notice that 30 people came to speak on Item A but no one on Item B.  By the way, they also notice emails on a given topic as well.  Numbers may be more important than content.
  3. With respect to content, there is an exception to Point 2, which is the novel piece of information. For the most part public conversations evolve (devolve?) into talking points.  Talking points become predictable and monotonous.  At some point (which is why I suggest one speaker, ten minutes), everything is repetitive.  However, there are exceptions where some people have unique circumstances or points of view that rise above the din.
  4. Yelling, threats, insults, strong emotions are not effective. Sometimes they look contrived.  Even when they don’t, it is easy to discount someone getting emotional over most items of business.  Threats and insults tend to discredit the speaker.  There are exceptions to every rule, but, for the most part, the more logical and dispassionate, the more effective.

One thing I have seen both the school board and city do is have the presiding official explain the rules.  Explaining the rules in advance is vital because what angers people is if they feel they are getting shortchanged.  The more the rules are explained in advance, the more the rules appear fair and impartial.

Finally whatever the rules are – be consistent.  Some people cut off speakers right at the end of their time, some will allow them to finish their thought, some will allow them to drag on.  The first two to me are acceptable, the third one invites trouble.  Whatever they decide, though, be consistent.

My preference – shorter public comments and more use of alternative ways to get the information to the governmental body.  Explore an app system that can allow for public comments to come in both in advance and in real time.

—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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25 thoughts on “My View: Changing the Way We Do Public Comment”

  1. Tia Will

    As an occasional, not regular commenter at city council, I appreciate Mayor Davis’ policy of sorting commenters by time requirement. Knowing I can designate how much time I need from one to three minutes helps me prioritize & organize my thoughts prior to speaking. Several times I have been able to shorten my message appreciably. I have never lengthened my message because I had more time. It has the advantage of being visibly fair and allows for speaker discretion and choice.

    1. Matt Williams

      I concur with Tia.  As a regular commenter, who has dropped back to the occasional category, I find Robb’s approach creative, inclusive and efficient.

      One step that could make public comment more efficient would be to expand the 3-day (72 hour) notice period for public meetings mandated by the Brown Act to 10 days (240 hours) to ensure more open, transparent and inclusive processes.  Staff Report material would be made available in full at the time of the meeting notice.  That would allow public commenters to submit their comments in writing, as well as give the Council time to truly engage the point of the public comment.

      The way things are currently, the chances of a Council member actually changing their vote based on something they have heard only minutes before is very slim.  In many ways Council meetings are exercises in Kabuki Theater.

      Jeez, when did I become such a cynic?

      1. Howard P

        Some serious flaws with this proposal,

        make public comment more efficient would be to expand the 3-day (72 hour) notice period for public meetings mandated by the Brown Act to 10 days (240 hours) to ensure more open, transparent and inclusive processes.  Staff Report material would be made available in full at the time of the meeting notice.  That would allow public commenters to submit their comments in writing, as well as give the Council time to truly engage the point of the public comment.

        Will note that except for emergency items, generally the agenda and staff reports are available at City Offices and the website, 100+ hours before the meeting commences.

        Looking at Matt’s 10 day proposal… for ‘regular’ items (including consent calendar items), City Clerk generally seeks (read, “requires”)  staff reports 10 days before the agenda package goes out (another 240 hours).  Departments generally seeks (read, “requires”)  staff reports 10 days before the report is transmitted to City Clerk, for internal review, “vetting” (another 240 hours).  So, a staff report is ~ 24 days old when it gets to CC… call it a month…

        Now if Matt’s proposal is limited to known contentious items, fine… but introduces 6 days delay… applying the same standard to consent calendar items, which are often informational, or ‘ministerial’ (generally, non-discretionary, but requiring CC approval and/or acknowlegement), isn’t good government.  It is delay for the sake of delay.

        Also should be exceptions for emergent/emergency items…

        1. Matt Williams

          Howard, does it really introduce 6 days delay?  Even if it does, what proportion of Council’s decisions get implemented immediately?  Very few I would suspect.

          With that said, give me an example of a recent emergent/emergency item for which a Council policy decision was required.  I’m racking my brain and none come to mind.  The Ghandi statue situation is the only one I can immediately think of.

        2. Howard P

          From the time the “final staff report” goes to City Clerk, gets agendized and ‘published’,  to City Council consideration you may be right… currently, the agenda is generally out by noon on a Friday… CC meets 6-7 P on Tuesday… that’s 4 days, 6 hours… making it 10 day, minimum (not counting another poster’s apparent suggestion to make it 10 “real” (assume ‘business”) days, 10-4=6… so maybe I’m 6 hours off… maybe… add another two to 3 days if it’s business days… the other way to look at it, you suggest 10 calendar days… 10-3 (statute minimum)=7… so yeah, I’d be off, but on the low side.

          You fail to distinquish between consent calendar items (many of which are implemented within a day or two) and things like a tentative map, which takes 5-6 months (or more) to process a Final Map.

          You made a “blanket” statement, as to all “final staff reports”, and so I replied taking your word verbatim… reality is, that the agenda packet is only prepared/produced once (for a given meeting)… so, the ‘rate determining factor’ is/are the contentious items/things.

          Not arguing, just pointing out the ‘logical consequences’ of your proposal… policy wise, might make sense… but there would be collatoral effects…

  2. Howard P

    Not to take anything away from Robb Davis, the technique of  1 min first, 2 second, etc., is far from “new”… goes so far back as a ‘tool’, I can’t remember when it started… going to guess maybe something like 20+ years…  it is a good tool… particularly if coupled with a total time limit.

    Know of a number of staff whose goal, for consent calendar items, in particular, was to say what you need to say (and what the CC and public needed to ‘hear’) in a staff report on one page (max, two) .  And to compose it in such a way that “what goes onto the Consent Calendar, stays on the Consent calendar.” Know of some who managed to do that ~ 95+% of the time.  Even on semi-complex items.

    Got harder when staff was instructed to point out what CC goals were being achieved (took some creativewriting at times), and fiscal impacts (usually obvious0

  3. Alan Miller

    Droning on and on, the usual suspects, too many words, lack of being concise, predictable and monotonous talking points, saying the same things over and over . . .

    Are we talking about City Council comments, or a typical blog post in the Davis Vanguard?

    1. Howard P

      Yes.

      [I swear some folk cut and past their posts, nearly verbatim, time, after time, after time, etc.) to fit the current topic du jour…]

  4. PhilColeman

    Public speaking time is a topic dear to my heart. Local government had drones long before the propeller kind.

    In Oakland years ago a public speaker was forcibly arrested and dragged out of City Hall screaming and hollering for refusing to leave the podium. Great theater but poor governance. Great side-bar story if somebody wants to hear it sometime.

    Some of the constructive solutions proposed and endorsed here could be called a start. Let’s step back to the real starting point, however, and identify a basic–movitation to speak.

    Some “speakers” simply want to lend their collective weight to a proposal. Numbers and perhaps volume to persuade. That’s where you get several successive persons saying the same thing.

    Try this for size: The moderator stresses that this is not a poll but rather a forum for logic and reason in support of, or oppositon to, the matter at hand. Begin with speakers for a measure and they be given one minute.  Offer that the most eloquent speakers can go first, actually say this.

    Ninety percent population are uncomfortable speaking in public. One percent should never be allowed to. In Davis, it might be 1.5 percent.

    One of the initial speakers makes particular comments in the succinct one-minute speaking limit. The moderator then asks the audience, “How many in the audience support what this speaker said and what you planned to say?” Ask them to stand up and then do an oral count. In efffect, they’ve spoken in front of an audience by simply standing up.

    Repeat as necessary. After, maybe, 4-5 speakers, the moderator will summarize the points made and then ask the audience for any speaker who has a new point to raise. Long silence. Repeat process for the other side.

    Now here is the crucial part, the most important part. Don’t allow rebuttals and counter-arguments. This requires a strong moderator to say this ruling body has the skill and experience to weigh all the pros and cons and we don’t require tutors to assist us.

    1. Howard P

      Agree ~ 90% with Phil… having sat in on CC meetings, long before they were video-taped, broadcast (inluding “streaming”), public comment is indeed, often, ‘theater’ now, compared to then.  Guess some folk want/need their “3 minutes of fame”/spotlight, and need a “fix” on a fairly regular basis…

      1. Alan Miller

        public comment is indeed, often, ‘theater’ now, compared to then.  Guess some folk want/need their “3 minutes of fame”/spotlight, and need a “fix” on a fairly regular basis…

        I resemble that remark . . .

    2. Todd Edelman

      Phil Coleman wrote

      Repeat process for the other side.

      Nor only are there two sides to every issue, there are no more than two sides to every issue.

      1. Matt Williams

        Howard, I think Todd’s comment has a typo.  The portion before the comma does not align with the portion after the comma. I suspect he has an extraneous “no” in the portion after the comma.

    3. Don Shor

      In Oakland years ago a public speaker was forcibly arrested and dragged out of City Hall screaming and hollering for refusing to leave the podium. Great theater but poor governance. Great side-bar story if somebody wants to hear it sometime.

      We had a sit-down protest and refusal to yield at the podium during the debate about West Nile spraying at a meeting that I took my kids to for a civics assignment. Also, the a/c was out. So it was a hot meeting literally and metaphorically.

  5. Todd Edelman

    My name is Todd Edelman. I am a resident of the Birch neighborhood, and a member of the Mobility & Street Interactions Commission, but my comments are my own. 1-2-3 is good. Getting notice and materials out ten days ahead – ten real days including weekends – is good. The City supporting a class in public speaking, and focused on Comments – is good, too. Allowing Council to respond as they see fit to clarifying questions from Commenter (within 3 min. max) would be good to consider. Requiring that Council and Commissions visit significant/serious discussions/projects two times at early and final stages of process would be good to consider. Allowing Commenters names to be added to live video as caption would be good consider. Allowing Commenters to display e.g. a Tiny Url with their comment or other material that would be displayed on screen during the comments would be great to consider. Minutes of all Commission and Council meetings are absolutely necessary. (About 60 seconds)

    1. Howard P

      Did you mean to say “including weekends” (what is posted) or “excluding weekends” (and holidays?)… what about UCD breaks (not in session)?

      Just looking for clarification on your intent…

      1. Todd Edelman

        Including weekends, holidays, alien invasions, temporal inversions, etc.
        To compare two meeting times: Materials for a Tuesday evening go out on the preceding Thursday evening. Materials for a Thursday evening go out the preceding Monday evening. The former is actually 120 hours and the latter 72 hours. This is obviously unfair/a bonus to one or the other.  So the 240-hour rule would exempt no time.

  6. Alan Miller

    I used to advocate for the need for three-minute public comments, but what I have found over the years, and for some reason this year in particular, is that three minutes is too long.

    Maybe the fact that you have sat in on and watched almost every comment at every City Councilmeeting for more years than most City Councilmembers is starting to affect your sanity . . . (it would nearly anybody’s)

  7. PhilColeman

    In public speaking training there is a basic guideline to follow. Less is more.

    An effective advocate chooses two or three key points, refines them to razor sharpness, then presents them in quick, hard-fitting fashion. Total time, one minute. Less is more.

    Edward Everett Hale orated for over two hours to say what Lincoln said in 272 words. Which speech is now etched in marble on a Washington memorial?

     

     

    1. Howard P

      Don’t disagree, but there is the old ‘toastmaster’s’ mantra, that also appears in Judaic tradition… “I tell you three times”… for toastmasters, it was “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them you what you told them”… can still be done succinctly, if one thinks it through… if one has a ‘litany’ of issues, not so much… (or, if one is looking for their media/fame exposure…)

      Love the Lincoln analogy!  I love to use that example (have done so for over 40 years, when appropriate), and the irony of Linoln’s words,

      The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here (3 of the four contemporary versions available on the internet)

      He got that wrong… or, was he just ‘messing’ with us?  I have come to believe he intended the irony… or, trying to show humility, appropriate for the situation…

      As I recall, he was the “second” speaker…

       

    2. Alan Miller

      In public speaking training there is a basic guideline to follow. Less is more.

      That’s one school of thought.  I subscribe to a different school that believes in the following basic guideline:  “Thou shalt not bore thy audience to death”.

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