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City Council Takes Up Limit on Debate and Late Night Meetings

Richmond is not the only city that struggles with how late to continue conducting a council meeting, but in most cities that debate revolves around how long public speakers have to make their point.

Last week in Richmond, the debate turned to muzzling City Council members who, in some people’s opinion, talk too long.

The Brown Act was designed to force local elected officials to debate in public, putting an end, supposedly, to back room deals. Putting a cap of a few minutes on such public debate is a bad idea. Granted, some City Council members may already have their minds made up, and listening to others trying to persuade theme otherwise may seem like a waste of time. Being the eternal optimist, however, I want to believe that hearts and minds are not always hardened and that vigorous debate on a subject can shape the outcome.

Regarding late night meetings, I have always voted to go home at midnight, but I was rarely joined by any of my colleagues. Some of the City Council’s greatest mistakes, like the certification of the EIR and approval of the CUP and Community Benefits Agreement for the Chevron Energy and Hydrogen Renewal project were made way past midnight. I would much rather meet an additional Tuesday each month than continue to meet after midnight.

In the end, the City Council backed off the limit on debate but agreed to start some meetings earlier.

Following is an article from the West County Times about Richmond and an article from Public CEO about similar concerns in Berkeley.

Richmond council vows to be more concise

By Katherine Tam
West County Times

Posted: 05/24/2009 12:36:41 PM PDT

Updated: 05/24/2009 05:19:32 PM PDT

Richmond city leaders admit there's a lot of talk at their meetings and have promised to reign in ... themselves.

The City Council is notorious for marathon meetings that run past midnight. The council shrank from nine members to seven in January as part of a voter-approved measure.

But even with two fewer people at the dais, Councilman Nat Bates said meetings still run late, leaving officials deliberating on important issues when they might not be as alert and leaving expensive consultants waiting to make presentations when they're on the clock.

So Bates proposed a new game plan Tuesday night: start council meetings at 6:30 p.m. with public comment, limit how long council members can speak on an agenda item and end meetings at 11 p.m. unless two-thirds of the council disagrees. "If there's no time limit, we just stay here until we exhaust ourselves," Bates said. "Any time you have a time limit, you'll be a little more expedient in taking care of business."

While parts of the proposal made sense to some council members, Councilman Tom Butt balked at the notion of time limits for council members to speak.

"I think you're all crazy is what I think," Butt said. "The idea of limiting debate is insane. Have you ever heard of the Brown Act? I can only talk to two other council members about a matter that's before the council before it shows up in public. So I show up here, and I've talked to maybe Bates and (Jeff) Ritterman, and I'd really like to convince (Jim) Rogers down there that this is a critical issue, and there are some things I'd like him to understand about it, and I've got two minutes to do it? ... If you guys limit debate, I'm out of here. I'm going to walk out in protest."

To top it off, Butt added that he's usually the only one voting "no" to extend meetings past midnight on those Tuesdays when meetings run long, so "if you think that enough people are going to vote to shut the meeting down at 11 o'clock, you're dreaming."

The council eventually reached consensus to begin meetings at 6:30 p.m., starting with public comment and followed by proclamations. Proclamations will be limited to no more than three a night. Meetings will end at 11 p.m. unless a simple majority votes to extend the meeting.

The council nixed the idea of time limits for council members to speak, but vowed to be more concise.

Reach Katherine Tam at 510-262-2787 or ktam@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Late Night Debate: How Late is Too Late for City Council Meetings?

Written by  Lance Howland    May 26, 2009

For many city councils, the price of democracy is that moment of peak fatigue, after deliberations have gone on too deliberately. A rule of thumb is that, when the meeting goes late, the quality of discussion is not great.

For that reason, many city councils have rules that put a fence around how late a meeting can go.
Tempers were short and angry words were exchanged when a recent Berkeley meeting went past midnight and more members of the public wanted to be heard on the topic of a draft of the city’s Climate Action Plan.

At the end of the meeting, bleary council members were unsure if they were voting on a resolution to extend the meeting or voting on amendments to the Climate Action Plan.

Mayor Tom Bates was trying to hasten the vote because of symbolism, hoping to have a plan in place by the next day, Earth Day. By the time the council voted to adjourn, it was Earth Day. It was after midnight.

The issue was resolved at the next meeting. All’s well that ends well.

“We have a rule on the books that we’re supposed to end at 11,” said Bates. “Eleven is pretty much the bewitching hour.”

As he presides over meetings, Bates takes into account the need to vote to extend the meeting past 11 with respect for residents who have come to speak on the issue. In many cases, it’s unfair to ask people to come back for another meeting if an issue is postponed, he said.

“We’re a perfect candidate for a TV reality show,” Bates said of the ebb and flow of Berkeley council meetings.

Most meetings have some street theater mixed in with the participatory democracy.

Berkeley will always have a place in the history of participatory democracy. It was home to the Free Speech movement in 1964-65, a civil rights landmark.

Most California cities wrestle at one time or another with the proper way to close discussion and vote on issues before council members become too punchy. Often this is expressed by putting a time limit on speakers. Most cities have a three- or five-minute limit on speakers. In Berkeley, this limit is two minutes.

“Berkeley is known for having lots of people wanting to speak on an issue, which is a good thing,” said Bates.

At one time, Bates noted, Berkeley council meetings started with a “lottery” in which five people’s names were drawn out of a drum, out of all those who wished to speak on non-public hearing matters. After some people objected, the city received a legal opinion that that method was illegal. Now the policy is that if less than 10 residents have signed up to speak, they get two minutes each. If it’s more than 10, they get one minute.

“You can say a lot in a minute,” said Bates.

In his six-and-a-half years as mayor, Bates said he has tried to limit the chaos in meetings, urging speakers to stick to the topic at hand. That advice includes council members — Bates said he has instituted two-minute limits on the lawmakers as well.

The Berkeley council policy guide has this rule:

No Council meeting shall continue past 11:00 p.m. unless a two-thirds majority of the Council votes to extend the meeting to discuss specified items; and any motion to extend the meeting beyond 11:00 p.m. shall include a list of specific agenda items to be covered and shall specify in which order these items shall be handled.

Galt, a small city in the Central Valley, is no stranger to late meetings, either. In an attempt to control the clock, Vice Mayor Barbara Payne put forward a resolution reducing the time for residents to speak from five minutes each to three minutes. Her resolution was voted down in January by other council members who didn’t want to restrict residents’ time.

Payne said she wanted to make sure the council retained enough time to take care of scheduled business. Also, she said, she felt sorry for city staff members who had to stay late even when discussion didn’t pertain to their departments. And fiscally, she noted, some staffers were being paid overtime as the clock ticked toward midnight.

“After a certain hour, after 11, you’re not as sharp and maybe your decision making isn’t as good,” said Payne. She lost the vote but, she noted, ever since then the meetings have ended at reasonable hours. One recent meeting ended at 8:40 p.m.

Sometimes it’s enough just to raise awareness.