Many Santa Monicans want their voices to be heard in City meetings, but very few are able or willing to wait patiently until the wee hours of the morning in order to do so. 

In an effort to address this barrier to participation, City Council voted on June 21 to pilot a series of meeting reforms that seek to ease the ability for people to provide public comment.

City Council is the leading culprit of marathon meetings, which can last eight or more hours, making it hard for residents to know when public comment will be held for their item of interest. 

Under the revised meeting structure, public input on non-agenda items, special items, closed session items, and consent calendar will take place at the beginning of the meeting before Council goes into closed session. Closed session will now have a set end time of 7 p.m., which will be followed by all remaining public comment on agenda items, except for public hearings. 

This model will give members of the public a predictable time to provide their comment. 

“By putting the public comment on agendized items earlier in the evening, it actually, I think, increases the ability of people to participate, because there are a lot of people who don’t participate now; because whether it’s in person or hybrid, they can’t sit on the phone, or stare at the computer or be here in person for five hours to wait for the item they care about.”

Public comment for public hearings (items that require public notice such as appeals, zoning changes and other items required by law) will continue to be heard when the items are called.

These pilot changes to public comment will begin on June 28 and remain in place through December 31.  

Another key change is Council’s decision to work towards implementing a hybrid meeting structure, which will allow people to provide remote or in person comments. 

“We all have busy lives and personal obligations,” said Mayor Sue Himmelrich. “Allowing remote public comment at board and commission meetings makes participating easier for everyone in our community.” 

Remote comment was first put in place when all meetings went remote at the outset of the pandemic. Currently, City Council meetings are back in person with in-person public comment only, while board and commission meetings remain virtual with remote comment only. 

Council voiced a desire to enable remote public comment at all in-person meetings in order to make it easier for people to participate. While this idea is great in theory it does come with a high price tag.

Staff estimates that the annual cost of running all meetings (commissions, boards and Council) in a hybrid model 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. 

Based on Council’s support for hybrid meetings, staff presented a plan to begin hosting hybrid City Council meetings in September. There is currently no funding allocated to support this, but staff will return at the mid-year budget to consider options to fund the necessary facility upgrades and staffing needs to fulfill the request for hybrid meetings. Council will revisit the comment model for board and commission meetings at the end of 2022, when they will also discuss whether to return these meetings to an in person format. 

Clara@smdp.com