Commentary: New Council to Deal with New Commenting Policy

Mayor Brett Lee

The new council was sworn in last night in a mostly ceremonial meeting.  But there is real business to attend to tonight, starting with the new rules of engagement.  In previous columns, I have made the argument that sometimes less is more when it comes to public comment.  I think when comments grow longer – as I explained using the comparison to a candidate forum – people tend to ramble.

The mayor is proposing that public comment be reduced from three minutes to 2.5 minutes.  In addition, the general public comment period would be reduced to 45 minutes.

I was trying to get ahold of some records on this, but my belief is that if public comment exceeded 45 minutes – which comes to 18 speakers – in the last year, I don’t recall it and it certainly would have been extremely rare.  This is also for general public comment, it does not apply to comment on actual agenda items.

I think that is important to recognize, because the pushback on this has occurred.

The council received an email yesterday noting: “This proposal is an over-reaction to some of the meetings which covered controversial issues when there were many speakers. Expecting citizens to be turned away at public comment at a reasonable time in the evening and expect(ing) them to come back late at night to testify is extreme and simply discourages public participation. It is hard enough for citizens to find the time to come down to speak on these important issues already so it should (not) be made more difficult form citizens to participate.”

They add, “Keep in mind that public comment opportunity has been reduce by 50% already since the City Council historically use to meet weekly, but within recent years, City Council meetings were reduced to two time(s) monthly.  So, reducing the ability for public comment even more is unfair and marginalizes Davis citizens.”

They continue: “I urge you to ask the Council to delay any change to public comment and see if the new Council group working together may actually be more concise in their comments and discussion, and when there are many member(s) of the pub(l)ic wanting to speak at General Pub(l)ic comment, the Mayor can ask for a head count of how many speakers there are and divide up the public comment time prioritizing non-agendized item commenters since that is their only opportunity to speak, and reduce the time limitation to the remaining time for speaker(s) there for agendized items that they cannot stay to speak on.”

My own view here is that this requires a balancing act, but there are alternate and perhaps more effective ways to engage with the council other than through a virtual filibuster.  Lengthy public comment I find less than effective.  The longer public comment goes, the less I end up paying attention to each individual’s words, the more the comments become repetitive, and the less effective they are.

I have used the example from the February 6 Nishi discussion.  At that discussion, we saw a large number of first-time commenters who very effectively used the one-minute option to quickly present their support for the project and sit down.  That enabled council to quickly get through the bulk of public commenters while making much the same point they would have made had they all spoken for three minutes.

Then the usual suspects came up, said the same things they had time after time previously, and all of them used their full three minutes.  I did not find those comments nearly as helpful

My suggestion is to actually go a lot further than Mayor Lee is proposing.

Back in 2006, the public comments were all restricted to two minutes.  So this move isn’t unprecedented.

What I suggest would be people giving a brief synopsis of a few key points and then provide written backup material in the form of a handout or email.

The other thing I suggest is to make use of designated spokespeople.  Previous Mayor Robb Davis allowed a group of five to come up with a speaker and he would grant that speaker five minutes.  Why not go further and allow a designated speaker (designated by the group of people not any official body) to speak for ten minutes and then poll the audience to show concurrence.

Of course that would only work on agendized items that have opposing sides, but it could be a way to much more quickly get through public comment on agendized items.

I think there are a lot of ways to communicate to council and I know the council is diligent about reading public correspondence.

I don’t see speech limitation as a barrier to public discourse, but rather a way to move the discussion along.  There are other and frankly more effective means for the public to make their views known to council.

—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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21 thoughts on “Commentary: New Council to Deal with New Commenting Policy”

  1. Ron

    From article/David:  “I did not find those comments nearly as helpful.”

    And “coincidentally”, you strongly disagreed with them.

    Now, if you used an example in which you agreed with the full-length comments (but still advocated limiting them), then you might have more credibility regarding this issue.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Actually as I recall two-thirds of the comments were in support of Nishi, so you’re premise is completely false. My assessment of the comments had nothing to do with whether I agreed with them.

      1. Ron

        The percentage of comments for and against has nothing to do with my point.  And, as you noted, the majority of the shorter comments supported your position.

        The lengthier comments (from those you dismissively label as the “usual suspects”) were weighted against the proposal.

        Again, I’d like to see an example in which you support limiting comments, when you largely agree with the (lengthier) commenters.

        The “usual suspects” generally have more knowledge, do more work to prepare, and have a broader perspective, vs. those who might go to the council for a more singular concern (e.g. their rent is “too high”).

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          But it has everything to do with my point. The usual suspects may or may not have more knowledge, but their comments are repetitive. That’s whether I agree or disagree with them.

        2. Ron

          I’ve learned a lot more from lengthier comments, vs. simple comments.  Repetitiveness can arise (between commenters), regardless of the length of the comments.

          If you come up with an example in which you supported limiting comments (but still agreed with the lengthier “usual suspects”), then my point would not be valid.  But, I don’t think you have such an example.

          If the length of comments is limited, it will likely discourage some commenters from participating in the process, at all. (Perhaps some would prefer that.) As it is, it takes commitment (and a lot longer than 3 minutes) to prepare, travel to the council, wait for your turn, listen to other business, etc.

          Although not “officially” sanctioned, the “usual suspects” probably do speak for a lot of others. Unlike what I hear from you and some others, I actually respect what they do.

        3. Ron

          And, speaking of repetitiveness, isn’t that one of the cornerstones of Vanguard articles? (And yes, the subsequent comments.) 🙂

          Not everyone has a blog.

          Perhaps the even more important/critical issue is the 45-minute limitation for public comment, at the beginning of the hearings.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            But most people have a means by which to send emails and utilize other forms of communication that are likely to be more effective. To a person, the feedback I get from the council centers around emails received, they use that as a metric for community interest and potential opposition to a given issue.

        4. Ron

          One of the reasons for public comment is so that anyone/everyone can hear (and learn of) issues and concerns.  Emails to the council do not accomplish this.

        5. David Greenwald

          Everyone gets to speak, but the courts have allowed two minute time limitations.  My suggestion is still that people can augment that time limitation through written follow up.

  2. Alan Miller

    > The longer public comment goes, the less I end up paying attention to each individual’s words

    > I did not find those comments nearly as helpful

    It ain’t about you.  If I made it my job to be at every city council meeting for hours, it would probably get on my nerves as well.  Many people find public speaking terrifying, and many issues require more than stating one’s opinion.  3 minutes is good, but I’m fine with 2 1/2.

    The 45-minute thing will have unintended consequences.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Actually, it’s my opinion and my opinion piece, so it is about my view. You think the councilmembers find the long and drawn out public comment process helpful?

      1. Ron

        If they don’t, then one might ask why they’re on the council. Hopefully, they have a more positive outlook regarding the process, than you.

        I would add to Alan’s comment above, and would note that it “ain’t all about the council members” personal preferences, either. They’re supposed to serve and represent the community.

      2. David Greenwald

        Actually it is, the council is the ones making the decision and the ones that will be held accountable by the community if they “err”

        Point out that under state law, the council is required to allow at least two minutes, Brett’s proposal is for 2.5 minutes.  We are arguing over 30 seconds.

        1. Ron

          It’s not just about 30 seconds.  (And, if it was, then why change it?  If there’s lots of people using 30 seconds, then there’s a lot of interest in an issue.)

          It’s also about the 45-minute total time limit, for public comment at the beginning of hearings.

          In general, limiting public comment can make elected officials less accountable, not more.

        2. Alan Miller

          > We are arguing over 30 seconds.

          No we aren’t, DG.  I’ve stated today and in your two previous articles that I’m OK with 2 1/2 minutes.

          > Actually it is, the council is the ones making the decision and the ones that will be held accountable by the community if they “err”

          That isn’t an argument in support of your contention.

        3. David Greenwald

          The weird thing is the 45 minute time limit, might have impacted one or two times last year.  18 people all speaking the maximum is what you’re talking about.

        4. Ron

          David:  “The weird thing is the 45 minute time limit, might have impacted one or two times last year.”

          That’s not an argument to change the current policy.  In fact, it’s the opposite.

  3. Jim Hoch

    I think they are headed in the wrong direction here. Instead of trying to suppress speech through punitive tactics why not incent people to submit written comments instead? The city could post comments that are written and presented in person at the CC meeting if the person does not speak.

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