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:
- Hear major issues at a set time and for a set amount of time.
- 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.
- 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.)
- Display speaker order on the screen above the Council.
- 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.
- 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.