|City Council Takes Up Limit on Debate and
Late Night Meetings
May 26, 2009
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Late Night Debate: How Late is Too Late for City Council Meetings?
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.
that reason, many city councils have rules that put a fence around how
late a meeting can go.
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.