The rules governing public comment at City Council have mutated with almost the frequency of Covid variants over the past few years and officials approved a “new” system again last week that also radically restructured the process for selecting a mayor.
The decision last week will extended an already in place pilot program allowing more flexibility in when speakers can address the council but falls short of adopting a “hybrid” model that would allow for call-in participation.
In the pre-Covid era, residents had to attend a meeting in person to participate. Speakers could address items on the agenda when they came up meaning some speakers had to wait hours before an item deep in the agenda surfaced.
During the pandemic imposed remote era, residents could utilize a call-in system to speak to the council by phone, again when their topic reached the dais.
As the pandemic waned, the remote option was removed but as it was not uncommon for council meetings to run into the early hours of the morning officials tried to institute reforms designed to streamline the democratic process. June marked the start of a six-month 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.
While data showed little improvement in participation rates under any system, Council was asked to choose between keeping the current pilot program or reverting to the pre-Covid model.
While Council ultimately chose to continue the pilot system, an idea was floated to implement hybrid public meetings with a call-in option, but due to limited resources, this was ultimately rejected due to cost and complexity concerns.
Councilmember Jesse Zwick inquired a little more into this and Assistant City Clerk Nikima Newsome said, “During the pandemic, we used Call in Studio, but that requires at least two staff to manage that and at least one person to facilitate the phone calls to put them into queue and then at least one person to serve as hosts to bring them into the meeting.”
The Council faced a number difficulties during the remote era with some technical and some human error. In many cases, callers said the system dropped them or didn’t connect them when it was time to speak. In other instances, many members of the public were unaware of the way meetings are broadcast and consequently struggled with the small time delay that exists with the “live” coverage of the Santa Monica City Council meetings aired on YouTube.
Staff said a hybrid system would require more staff and technological upgrades that were not budgeted.
“We are not able to do the audio video portion. Because we do CityTV, we aren’t able to do that. And then of course there are upgrades of technology and equipment. So it’s not that we just said ‘no’ to it. It’s something we have considered, but given the financial status, the equipment and the lack of equipment, we would not be able to [achieve success],” City Clerk Denise Anderson-Warren said in response to Mayor Gleam Davis’ query regarding the high cost quote to make video conferencing more effective.
“There is plenty of software and plenty of technology, but it still takes a human being to be able to bring a person into a meeting and to be able to manage the meeting,” she said.
While Council settled on the method of comment, a tangential subject was brought up at the end of the discussion: selection of mayor.
For most of the City’s history the mayor has been selected by a vote of the Council. While the position has little actual power, it has been sought after as a boost to reelection bids and a veritable feather in the cap of elected officials.
Councilmember Oscar de la Torre said the system caused tensions between individuals on the dais and instead proposed a “rotational mayor” system.
In essence, this would allow the Council to select the longest continuously serving Councilmember, whether initially elected or appointed, to serve as Mayor for a one year term. Each subsequent December, the next longest continuously serving Councilmember would be selected as Mayor for a one year term and so on.
If two or more Councilmembers were elected at the same election, the Councilmember receiving the higher number of votes shall be considered as having served longer for purposes of this provision. If two or more Councilmembers were initially appointed to serve at the same time, then when they each may first become eligible to be selected as Mayor, a coin flip shall decide who shall be considered as having served longer for purposes of this provision.
Councilmember Jesse Zwick opposed the concept saying seniority wasn’t a guarantee of ability but a majority of the council disagreed saying the system can be revised at any point in time and given the mostly ceremonial nature of the job, the title can be stripped from anyone by a majority vote if necessary.
“I had a conversation with our city attorney, he has some experience from the city of Fresno. Since then, I also learned that the City of Malibu, I think the City of Beverly Hills too, they’ve been using this method as well and I just thought that it would be a very positive thing for us a step in the right direction for us to try to minimize the polarization,” Councilmember de la Torre said.
The motion to extend the pilot program, together with the rotational mayor supplement, was passed six to one, with only Councilmember Jesse Zwick voting against it.