Members of the public who wish to address City Council can speak at the beginning of an agenda item rather than the end if they speak for one minute instead of the usual two.

City Council considered a set of changes to public comment rules as a way to shorten Council’s often lengthy meetings, but voted unanimously Tuesday to incentivize members of the public to condense their comments rather than limiting the time they are allowed to speak.

Council then asked staff to research other options to prevent meetings from lasting until midnight or later, a common occurrence that frustrates many residents.

“The length of our meetings has become a serious problem and it is preventing community members who have work, school or childcare responsibilities from participating,” said Councilmember Kevin McKeown. “To address that problem, we want to take the smallest and least coercive step first.”

Staff had proposed reducing the amount of time people can donate to a speaker from two minutes to one and requiring multiple applicants or appellants on the same administrative item to share 10 minutes to speak. Staff also suggested a special time limit for long meetings that would have required fifteen or more people speaking on one item or forty or more people speaking on multiple items to limit their remarks to one minute.

Instead, Councilmember Sue Himmelrich introduced a motion to prioritize members of the public who use one minute to speak and allow K-12 students to speak at the beginning of meetings. Himmelrich’s motion also codified Council’s practices of allowing those who need interpreters four minutes to speak and hearing Council appointments as a special agenda item. The latter followed staff’s recommendation.

“I am really having challenges with these proposed rule changes because there are a lot of them and they are really drastic and we should not minimize the public’s ability to speak to us to the greatest extent possible,” Himmelrich said before introducing the motion. “Letting those who speak for one minute go first is a carrot, and the people may take us up on it.”

Some residents and community groups also opposed the proposed changes, including the Santa Monica Transparency Project, a government watchdog, which supported allowing speakers who use one minute to go first but said the other recommendations would “interfere, limit and demean resident input.”

Councilmembers said they want staff to report back to Council the effect the motion it approved has on the length of meetings. McKeown also asked staff to study how many speakers per item should trigger a reduction in their total speaking time and what that reduction should be.

Councilmember Ted Winterer said Council could also address the frustration members of the public have expressed about having to wait for hours to speak on an item by telling them when they can realistically expect to give public comment.

“We need to do a better job of communicating through the City website or clerk’s desk that open session doesn’t start until 6:30 and that even after that, you can usually leave for a few hours to get coffee or dinner until it’s your time to speak,” he said.

Mayor Gleam Davis said shorter meetings would allow Council to give full consideration to all items.

“I’m not a fan of curtailing the time people can speak to us, but … the idea that we’ll have a coherent discussion at 2 a.m. when we all have day jobs is unrealistic,” she said. “Deciding something that seriously affects the city at that hour is problematic.”

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