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