The mayor and council seemed prepared to make changes to public comment rules, but 12 public commenters spoke out, primarily against the 45-minute limitation, causing the mayor through suggestions from his colleagues to modify the proposal.
While the council can vote to overrule the mayor, generally speaking they give the mayor the discretion to set the rules for conducting meetings. Mayor Brett Lee explained to his colleagues that he brought this up two weeks ago in June because he wanted to get the input of longtime outgoing councilmembers Rochelle Swanson and Robb Davis.
Now he sought feedback from his colleagues. He explained that the goal is not to cut public comment, “the goal here is to have a well-run meeting which benefits all people and will allow a greater number of people to comment on items.”
He mentioned a story where he came for an item that was scheduled for 9 pm. He sat in the audience and waited. At 10:45 the council was so far behind schedule that they let the public know the item, which he had come to participate in, was going to be re-scheduled to the next meeting.
“That was not acceptable,” he said. “I view my time as valuable.”
He said, “How do we run a meeting in such a way that someone who’s interested in an item… how do we make it so that those residents feel like they can schedule their evening to come down and participate in that discussion?
“The idea here is not that we’re trying to eliminate general public comment,” the mayor reiterated. “We’re trying to run a meeting in such a fashion that people can have a little more certainty, so that people can be comfortable coming down with a reasonable expectation that the agenda will be discussed close to the time marked on the agenda.”
Soliciting from his new colleagues, he got a mixed response.
“This is a tough one,” Gloria Partida said, agreeing that efficiency and being on time “is really important.”
On the other hand, she said, “I do believe that setting two and a half minutes is really not long enough for some of the more weighty items that people are going to weigh in on.” She added, “It’s less important to limit the length of time that people are speaking, it’s more important to limit the minutes that we’re going to hold public comment for.”
Dan Carson was ambivalent. He said that he is supportive of the 45 minutes as a way to create a “more orderly meeting process that provides certainty.” He also said, “If that 45 minutes turns out to be a real problem, we can re-think it.”
Will Arnold deferred his comments but Lucas Frerichs suggested, “I am supportive of the proposed changes. We can always adjust and review.”
Twelve people, as stated above, came to public comment on Tuesday. Most of them were opposed to any changes, some were okay about two and a half minutes, but most were opposed to a 45-minute overall limit. Interestingly, they were opposed to it even though no one provided any sort of data as to how many times the general public comment even bumped up against either a 45-minute or 18-speaker limit (the number of speakers who can speak for 2.5 minutes in a 45-minute period).
Some were quite vocal about it. Ron Glick also objected to having the new clock facing the public. “There was nothing wrong with the old one there, to me it’s an insult to the public.
“This whole thing to me,” he added, “is an insult to the public.” He said, “There isn’t one of you up here that didn’t volunteer to run for office…. This is the culture of Davis. What is being proposed here is nothing less than trying to censure the public.”
Stephanie Perreira called the proposed changes “nonsense.” She later added, “Let’s be clear here, this is not because you experienced a meeting where a bunch of students came and talked about rodenticides one time. You complain about us coming to public comment to talk about police regularly. So, we know what this is about. Don’t kid yourself. The fact that you want to shorten public comment just shows that you don’t want to listen to the public.”
Clearly, the council heard the comments from the public because, following public comment, they began to modify the proposal.
Councilmember Will Arnold stated, “Part of me is inclined to let the mayor try out what he wants.”
He pointed out that “meetings become very very late right off the bat, because we have a lot of unexpected public comment.”
Councilmember Arnold then said, “If we’re forced to choose between shorter individual comments and cutting off commenting altogether, which means cutting off some comments and moving them to the end of the agenda, I believe we should choose the former – meaning I support shortening individual comments versus limiting how many get to comment.”
He didn’t initially object to the split commenting time, but said after having conversations with the community “that effectively says you’re not going to get to make your public comment if you’re going to have to wait four more hours before you get to make your public comment.”
This led Brett Lee to start modifying his proposal. The idea would be, following from Councilmember Arnold’s comment, that they target an overall 45 minutes. If there are only 10 commenters – following a show of hands – then they could stick to three minutes. If there were 15 or more people wanting to speak, “we would be able to ratchet that down to two and a half minutes” and “even if there were 25 or 30 people, we would not push anyone to the end of the meeting. We would be okay, reducing the amount of public comment time.”
There was some support with asking for one minute, two minutes, three minutes. There was consensus that they should do that every time. Brett Lee said, “I’m not a fan of one minute, two minutes, three minutes, but I am happy to give it a try.”
He said, “We ask for a show of hands, we get a rough estimate, and if it looks like the number of people speaking at three minutes will exceed 45 minutes, we drop it down. I would say the minimum would be two minutes.”
He said that “there is this mechanism that’s understood that we will endeavor to keep the meeting relatively on track.” He said, “We do have the ability to limit public comment in terms of time limit per person, but we will endeavor to hear all of that public comment at the beginning of the meeting.”
The council allowed the mayor to go forward with this proposed plan without a vote.
—David M. Greenwald reporting