City Council meetings are long and painful for councilmembers and members of the public alike, but the best way to reform them is unclear.
Marathon meetings that stretch on until the early hours of the morning can impact councilmembers’ reasoning and make it challenging for local residents to participate in public comment. In addition, the introduction of remote public comment during the pandemic made it easier for people to participate in Council meetings as well as meetings of boards and commissions. But, as meetings transition back in person, the future of this feature is both costly and uncertain.
With all of these problems in mind, councilmembers held a study session during their meeting to discuss the best way to hold meetings.
There are several options for change on the table.
The first staff suggestion, moving meeting start time to 4:30 p.m, was unanimously shot down.
“I do think we need to be sensitive that we don’t create a structure where people who were in that traditional nine to five job aren’t able to participate either as council members or as members of the public,” said Councilmember Gleam Davis.
The second staff suggestion, holding more meetings per month in hopes of shortening overall meeting length, was a subject of greater debate.
Councilmember Phil Brock supports adding more meetings as he feels that the current length of meetings is having a noticeable effect on councilmembers’ decision making skills.
“I absolutely believe in separating our study sessions and the appeals to a different day when necessary,” said Brock, adding that he supports this for two main reasons, “one to make sure we’re fresh and secondly, to make sure that residents really feel they’re being heard and can tune in at a great time to be part of their participatory government.”
Councilmember Lana Negrete disagreed and said that the current meeting schedule was already onerous enough for Councilmembers, particularly members like herself who are also working parents. Negrete does not feel like adding more meetings would result in greater net efficiency.
“I can count some of the months we were here for back to back nights multiple weeks in a row, and like Councilmember Davis said, I don’t think that it’s making the meetings any shorter. It’s just redistributing it, and I think it’ll actually just mean that we’ll go longer at each of those meetings because we’re all very long winded,” said Negrete.
One possible change to meetings that Councilmembers were generally supportive of is moving all public comment to the beginning of the meeting.
The benefit is that members of the public will have a set time to speak at and thus will not need to stay up until very late hours in order to comment on an item that matters to them. The detriment is that public commenters will not hear a staff report or any councilmember comments prior before speaking on a subject and councilmembers may struggle to recall what was said on an item during public comment when it comes time to discuss it several hours later.
“Most people who come up to the mic have already decided what they’re going to say. It’s rarely in my experience based on anything we’ve said up here during the meeting,” said Negrete. “We listen, or at least I know I do, to the comments that are made, so if they’re made up front, we take notes and it is going to impact us in the discussion later on.”
Councilmembers were also interested in continuing the option of continuing to allow remote participation in meetings as it allows greater access and input opportunities for members of the public. Currently with the exception of City Council, all other civic meetings are still taking place remotely. Moving all civic meetings to a hybrid model (in person meetings with a remote comment option) would incur significant costs.
Staff estimates that the annual cost would be $459,852. This includes covering the regular and overtime pay for staff members to assist in running these meetings as well as the one time costs of meeting room upgrades to facilitate remote public comment.
“I do think for any large number of reasons whether it’s child care, differential abilities, or simply just expanding the universe of people who feel comfortable participating or meetings, we need to find a way to do truly hybrid meetings, which include an option to do live participation. And I understand it will be more expensive, and we’ll probably have to have a discussion about how we pay for that,” said Councilmember Gleam Davis.
Based on councilmembers’ comments in the study session staff will return with formal recommendations for altering the format of meetings.