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Eyes on 11 Whistleblower

Santa Monica Council Tweaks Public Input Rules


Bob Kronovetrealty
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Santa Monica Convention and Visitors

By Jorge Casuso

February 28, 2019 -- Worried about curtailing public testimony, the City Council on Tuesday rejected any major changes to its public input polices.

Instead, it unanimously voted to allow speakers who cut their comments from 2 minutes to 1 to choose to speak first on an item.

The Council also directed staff to explore other ways to help shorten meetings that often run past midnight, including a recent one that ended after 3 a.m.

"I've sat here for over twenty years watching on long items as we call out names, and as the night gets longer and longer, more names go unanswered," said Councilmember Kevin McKeown.

The approved change, he said, "allows people to choose to speak for one minute first. One minute is really a long time."

Staff had recommended limiting individual remarks to one minute when 15 or more members of the public testify on a single item or if 40 or more "wish to speak on any combination of items" ("Santa Monica City Council to Explore How to Shorten Meetings," February 21, 2019).

Most Councilmembers thought that went too far.

"I think it's really drastic," said Councilmember Sue Himmelrich. "I think we should minimize changes to the public's right to speak."

But Mayor Gleam Davis worried the change didn't go far enough.

"It really isn't a very substantive change in any significant way," she said. "I don't think we're going to see any material difference.

"Having meetings tha drag on till eleven or midnight at night are not only unfair to the people who are waiting to speak on those items but terribly unfair to those items.

"The idea that we're going to have a coherent discussion about something at two or three in the morning when we all have day jobs is just not realistic."

During a 45-minute discussion, the Council explored other changes to its rules, including allowing students to speak first.

Some worried it would be difficult to identify a student (Councilmember Ana Jara suggested asking them for an ID) and that students in adult education classes would try to abuse the privilege.

They also considered whether a student's parents should be included and decided against it.

After a brief discussion of the difference between a translator and an interpreter, the Council also clarified that speakers who use an interpreter (the preferred term) be given twice the allotted time.

Councilmember Ted Winterer said the City could do a better job informing the public about meeting schedules.

He noted that some speakers show up at 5:30 p.m. -- the meeting time posted on the agenda -- and have to wait for the Council to go into closed session before the meeting starts, typically around 7 p.m.

Staff, he said, should conduct an "aggressive analysis" of they type of items that attract the most speakers.

The Council should then consider hearing those items first, Winterer said.

The Council has previously tried to curtail the length of meetings.

In 2010, Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver suggested limiting the amount of time council members had to discuss an item. The suggestion was met mostly with dissatisfaction ("Council Ponders How to Make a Shorter Meeting," June 24, 2010).

Later that year, the Council also explored placing a five-minute limit on oral staff reports and using timers to show public speakers and council members how long they had been speaking ("Development Agreements, Length of Meetings on City Council Agenda," September 10, 2010).

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