Community organizers, stakeholders and gadflies, take note: rules surrounding public comments at civic meetings could once again be changing in January, after Santa Monica City Council declined to extend a pilot program meant to streamline city council meetings.

With council meetings regularly stretching to the wee hours of the morning, staff and council members have been eager to institute reforms designed to improve the democratic process and get city leaders into bed at a reasonable hour. But a set of changes implemented at the June 21, 2022, special council meeting are not the solution, according to a majority of current council members.

June marked the start of a six-month pilot program that saw public input on non-agenda items, special items, closed session items, and consent calendar moved to the start of meetings, before Council heads into closed session. Closed session was to end by 7 p.m., followed by general public comment on all agenda items except for public hearings.

At the time, six out of seven council members approved the changes, with just Council Member Phil Brock voting against the new format.

Since changes were implemented, there has not been clear evidence of meetings getting shorter — Tuesday’s council meeting, for example, lasted more than seven-and-a-half hours. At that meeting, Santa Monica city staff requested the six-month pilot program be extended through at least March 2023, in order to give the experiment more time.

“So the reason why the staff is bringing this item forward is twofold: For one thing, six months hasn’t been enough time for the clerk’s office to be able to work out all the kinks with both our agenda management technology and with doing the pilot program,” City Clerk Denise Anderson-Warren said. “As you know, each meeting something new comes up and I myself only sit for a meeting every quarter. So, every time I sit, it’s like doing it all over again … We just think we would like more time to be able to flesh this out to be able to make it more successful.” 

Anderson-Warren added that she also believed, with at least two new council members filling seats left vacant by Mayor Sue Himmelrich and Mayor Pro Tem Kristin McCowan, both of whom declined to run for additional terms, it would be helpful to continue the program to give newcomers a chance to opine after a few months in the dias. New council members will begin their terms in mid-December.

“For them to be able to sit here and intelligently vote on an item that they’ve got no experience with because that’s their first meeting — it’s just not there,” Anderson-Warren said. “So, we just think it’s best that we allow them to have three more months to be able to look at the pilot program and then to make a full evaluation in March.”

Council Member Oscar de la Torre suggested modifying the program but, because of open meeting laws, no changes could be made on the spot during the Sept. 27 meeting.

“I don’t disagree with what Council Member de la Torre is proposing. I think the challenge is just that we can’t take that up tonight,” Himmelrich said. “So, I think … we just take the vote on what’s before us, and then either the extension passes or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, then you all take it up, you know, in December.”

Council voted, 4-3, to not authorize the extension; however, a new configuration of council members may approve a different method for public comment when it sits in December. Council Members Christine Parra, Lana Negrete, Brock and de la Torre voted not to extend the pilot; McCowan, Himmelrich and Council Member Gleam Davis dissented. The next time the issue comes before council, Himmelrich and McCowan will no longer be presiding; Negrete is currently running for a second term.

emily@smdp.com