Time to Reform the Public Speaker Process at City Council Meetings

Except for the final passage of the four measures in the wee hours of the morning—at about 3:30 a.m.—the January 22 City Council hearing on strengthening the OPD did no service to Oakland.

As is too often the case when the Council hears contentious issues, the arduous process operated as a war of attrition between those speakers able to stay practically until dawn, and those who had to go home on BART before its midnight closing.

Those who attended the meeting or watched it on KTOP, found it difficult to remember that the purpose of Council hearings is to help the Council make the best decisions for the residents of Oakland.  Instead, we were treated to the spectacle of hundreds of speaker-card holders clogging the system with repetitive messages, AND not providing any information to help the decision process. Council’s actions in the past at similar marathon sessions have given the impression to participants that public policy objectives can be achieved by rallying large numbers of vociferous speakers to monopolize the hearing process. This is no way to set policy.

The final 7-1 and 8-0 votes—contrary to the expressed demands of the majority of speakers at the January 22nd meeting—were the right ones. Still, these long and exhausting hearings cannot be helpful to anyone.

We think the real problem is that the rules of the council are not designed to inform the council or to help them make good decisions.

California’s Brown Act requires open and public hearings by city councils, and that is as it should be.  All views should be fairly presented before Council makes its decisions.  But the experiences of the State Legislature and local governments around the State show that there are better ways to ensure all sides are heard. We would suggest Council consider reforms, including the following:

  1. Hear major issues at a set time and for a set amount of time.
  2. Provide equal time for supporters and opponents with some provision made for those who are neither. Speaker cards have a “for” or “against” box to check, but most people don’t use it.
  3. Rotate time between supporters and opponents with priority determined by time of signup. (i.e., if there is a two-hour hearing and two minutes allowed per speaker, the first sixty to sign up would be heard.)
  4. Display speaker order on the screen above the Council.
  5. Reform the process for ceding time. The current process is very disruptive to the flow of witnesses, and can substantially prolong the amount of administrative time during public speaking.  Council rules could provide that all ceding must be arranged for in advance, with the names of the ceding speaker-card holders provided to the clerk. In addition, all ceding speaker-card holders must appear at the podium with the speaker. The process of having speakers continually appeal to the audience for more time needs to be curtailed or, preferably stopped.
  6. Consider allowing Committee hearings to be the public hearing on some, or all, of the calendar. Under the Brown Act no public hearing is required at regular meetings if there was a public hearing in a committee composed only of Council members. Since working people should be allowed to speak on issues before Council, and most Committee meetings are during the day, the Council should consider having special committee meetings at night for major issues.

We believe that new council rules—respectful of the time of Oaklanders who come to Council meetings to speak—imposing reasonable limits on hearing time, while ensuring that all points of view are heard, would result in Council receiving useful and meaningful testimony at hearings.

Make Oakland Better Now!

OakTalk Here is the blog of Make Oakland Better Now!, an Oakland community grassroots group of a grass-roots group of voters, volunteers, and policy advocates committed to improving the City of Oakland by focusing on public safety, public works, and responsible budgets. Founded in 2003, we’ve researched, lobbied, and successfully campaigned for a number of new, impactful policies, including the city’s Rainy Day Fund, Measure Z and Operation Ceasefire.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Justin Horner

    I like 6, but overall, I think it bares repeating (and repeating) that speaking at a Council Meeting will have little, or no, effect on the Council’s deliberations on an issue. No Oaklander should expect to have an impact on the Councilmembers if their only involvement in an issue is to show up at the full Council meeting and express their opinion.

    For residents to have an impact on decisions, they must attempt to meet with Councilmembers privately to express their concerns, and, if possible, attend the appropriate Committee meeting. Yes, that takes people’s time; yes, not all Oaklanders can commit to that much involvement; and, yes, most people dont want to put out that much effort. But I’m not sure that there’s anything inherently unfair about only entertaining seriously the opinions of people who commit enough time to make themselves intelligible and convincing in a timely manner.

    The theater of the Council can be improved; but, in my opinion, the Speaking rules at Council are not what is holding the city back.

  2. Rebecca Luisa

    why would we let the public speak at any public city council event! let their children starve! why waste money on actual, proven effective public services when we can throw it away on the OPD!?

  3. “The final 7-1 and 8-0 votes—contrary to the expressed demands of the majority of speakers at the January 22nd meeting—were the right ones.”

    Um, how are they “right” if they are contrary to the will of the people here?

    How is “right” determined?

  4. NancyL

    How about a process that incorporates the comments and feedback of people NOT AT THE MEETING? Most Oaklanders can’t attend a City Council meeting, and there is no sufficient process to share their feedback publicly. Email to all the councilpersons is not enough.

  5. jimdexter

    I’ve experienced CC meetings that were brought to a halt, extended beyond belief, and with public comments that I think should have resulted in the speakers being arrested for threatening public officials. Yes, the situation is untenable. However, there needs to be an even stronger methodology for the public to be able to speak with our elected officials in a public forum. How about coming into the 21st Century, and having a fully-functioning Town Hall web site, where public officials (or staff) are present at pre-determined times, and that the public can initiate real-time discussions on topics. These discussions/rants would be preserved for all to see at anytime, with a push mechanism for those citizens who wish to be notified of topics of interest to them. Then, meeting rules should be invoked that would limit the number of speakers, and force groups of speakers to choose a single representative (but give enough time for the representative to fully detail a complicated position statement). All such groups should be forced to ‘cede’ time prior to the meeting, so that no time for such efforts affects the meeting time itself.

    As an appropriate give-and-take, Open Forum should be extended to 1/2 hour at the beginning of each meeting, with four minutes maximum for speakers.

  6. hkp

    Just noting, FTR, that your January 22 blog post ENCOURAGES people to come to the Council meeting and speak while today’s recommends procedures to shut it all down.
    Interesting. And kind of illustrative of the reason why there needs to be a process for ALL people to come and air their views.
    I watched the Jan.22 hearing on cable access for a couple of hours and found it kind of fascinating. Those opposed to the proposals discussed certainly had some good points which deserved to be aired, one of which was that people (specifically young men) who have a job are less likely to cause trouble of any kind.
    And yet you have this, the City forced to return over $600,000 in job training funds because they simply could not figure out a way to meet grant requirements:
    So, in my opinion, you can authorize the hire of any number of consultants, vote to spend any amount of money, HOWEVER, while the people actually running this poor city are without a CLUE as to how to run a city, it will not make a shred a difference.
    The dysfunction is so deep, it could almost make you cry…

  7. themacinator

    these are great suggestions, thanks for throwing them out there. i may put something up on my blog in response.

    question: how are #1 and #2 not potentially mutually exclusive? if we take a controversial issue that has 100 supporters wanting to speak and 10 people wanting to speak against, how can we make sure that they are heard for the same amount of time, while having the issue heard for a set amount of time? i believe it’s importnat that everyone have an opportunity to be heard, though you bring up a good point that the open meeting is probably not the proper forum.

    excellent point on #4: there is absolutely no reason (with the exception of Oakland’s inability to catch up to the times) that this process can’t be streamlined with the use of technology. kudos for the city clerks for doing the best they can, but the councilmembers seem determined (with the help of #5) to make the process long and drawn out. this CAN be done. anyone know of any cities that have made the speaker process totally (or even partially) electronic? (This would also help when speakers are spread out in overflow rooms. how silly is it to have the assistant city administrator running around City Hall looking for speakers???)

    thanks for the thoughts. lots to think about.

  8. Greg McConnell

    Obama was right when he said long lines discourage voting. So too does gaming the speaker participation process discourage people from attending and participating in Council meetings.

    Take a look at what Berkeley, San Francisco and Santa Cruz regulations provide. (I mention these three cities because they are all progressive cities with important free speech histories.) Each city limits the amount of time on topics and limits the ceding process.

    People who speak should be restricted to the issue that is up for discussion. The process of allowing someone to sign up for every item and then consolidate his/her time and rant for ten minutes is offensive. And, please enforce the rules. Open forum is specifically restricted to issues that are not on the agenda. These days people sign up for open forum, get friends to cede time, and then talk about issues that are scheduled for discussion later in the meeting, Then they often speak again.

    The Brown Act does not require that every person who attends a meeting must be allowed to speak. Reasonable time limits and organizing speakers are legal; and I believe better procedures would promote wider participation in Council meetings.

  9. Mike

    Not an unreasonable proposal at first glance–Council meetings can be a mess and certainly do not inspire confidence in Oakland’s governance. In context, however, it’s something like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Getting even a minor improvement in how public testimony is handled by the Council would doubtless entail a major battle taking time and energy away from what matters most.

    Better to put first things first. Like Oakland as a whole, MOBN needs some sense of priority. Oakland’s government is essentially a failure: crime is out-of-control; there are huge structural financial problems; government is essentially opaque rather than transparent; confidence is low and mistrust is very high. Why put a lot of effort into work at the margins of these failures?

    With regard to the big problem of crime, Oakland has taken only very small steps towards real problem-solving. The Council and Mayor have, essentially, only just admitted that there is a big problem. The real work has yet to begin. MOBN might think about concentrating on this real work.

    One might look at dysfunctional Council meetings essentially as an aspect of our transparency problem. A fundamental approach to improving transparency in Oakland might be to propose an adequate budget and a prioritized list of appropriate tasks for the City Auditor. If we knew more about where our money was going and how many Oakland governmental activities are working well or not working at all, we might be able to discover how to move ahead.

  10. Alex

    What’s the point of a city council anyways? Why don’t we bypass this mini-congress and put everything to a vote?

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