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City Could Adopt Strict New Rules for Public Meetings

A proposal to be discussed by the Council tonight would put stricter time limits on public comment, limit the use of electronics during meetings, and more.

Editor's Note: Read our updated article here from the City Council meeting, where councilmembers offered more insight into the intentions of the guidelines.

 

Do you think the City needs stricter guidelines for audience reaction and participation when conducting controversial public hearings in which large groups of residents wish to speak?

Apparently, Redwood City Mayor Alicia Aguirre thinks so - and that is why she asked City Council members to form an ad-hoc committee recently to draft a set of rules and guidelines for all City commissions, boards and councils to follow.

As recent City meetings have proven, many feel rules can be inconsistent regarding how audiences are allowed to react to speakers' comments when something controversial is discussed.

In some meetings, vocal public reactions such as clapping, cheering or gasping are allowed, as witnessed in the Redwood City School District's recent Board of Trustees meeting, in which applause broke out after almost every comment by a parent who spoke in favor of allowing the sixth-grade class of Adelante school's Spanish Immersion Program to remain on the campus rather than being moved to another. Editor's note: These new rules would not apply to school board meetings, as school districts are not governed by the City.

However, in other meetings, such as the Planning Commission's public hearings, Commission Chair Ernie Schmidt does not allow vocal reactions by the audience at all, and permits only silent hand gestures called "spirit fingers" to show one's approval of a speaker's remarks.

An 11-page document - included in the photos section of this article - created by the City's ad hoc committee will be discussed at tonight's City Council meeting. The proposal spells out rules for City meetings such as prohibiting disruptive conduct such as loud reactions in favor of or against speaker comments, ending meetings no later than 11 p.m. unless five out of seven members vote to extend, guidelines for how crowded a meeting can be and where audience members are allowed to sit or stand, prohibiting speaker comment cards from being submitted once a public hearing has begun, and more.

The rules would also prohibit a practice that has become more popular at public hearings recently, in which one speaker "cedes" his or her time to another speaker to allow them to speak longer than the usual allotted three minutes.

City Councilmember Rosanne Foust said, in a recent interview with the San Mateo Daily Journal, “This allows all groups to have the same rights and privileges and information. If we have the rules too loose it can be open to interpretation.”

One of the most potentially impactful rules in the sub-committee's proposal is the limiting of time for public hearings and comments on controversial issues.

The proposal includes a maximum of only 15 minutes for non-agendized public comment, with the usual three-minute time limit per speaker, and only 30 minutes of public comment regarding any action items on the agenda. If there are more than five speakers who wish to address the room, the new rules say these time limits will still stand, and the time per speaker can be cut to less than three minutes.

Appeals and other public hearings will be limited to 60 minutes - a rule which could impact the carrying out of the recently-filed appeal against the development of Pete's Harbor, recently approved by the Planning Commission. The new rules give each side in an appeal - the appellent, and the applicant, which is the landowner in this case - only 10 minutes each to plead their case. In a case in which there is more than one apellent, the maximum time can be increased to no more than 20 minutes. The report indicates the City hopes this will "avoid the inequity of some parties obtaining more time than others," according to the document.

In other items, the document proposes that City council, board and commission members be banned from the use of electronics such as laptops, iPads or smartphones during meetings to access the Internet, and it proposes guidelines on what types of "ex-parte" communications (with outside parties) are allowed outside of official meetings.

All in all, these new rules suggest that long meetings such as the recent three-and-a-half hour discussion of the proposed expansion of the Costco gas station and multiple long meetings regarding the development of Pete's Harbor into luxury condos may no longer be commonplace.

Tonight's meeting of the City Council begins at 7 p.m. and takes place in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 1017 Middlefield Road. It can also be streamed live via the web by clicking on "Video" next to the date of the meeting on the City Council's page on the City website.

 

PATCH WANTS TO KNOW - What do you think of these proposed rules? Do you think some City meetings are getting out of hand? Are there any other rules you think should be enacted? Tell us in the comments below.

 

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Sharon Levin November 19, 2012 at 10:10 PM
Sadly, our City Council is famous (okay, infamous) for being uncomfortable (at the least) and hostile (at the most) to comments that disagree with what they are thinking. I remember when the Sequoia High School public safety officer's position was going to be eliminated and many of us showed up to speak in support of keeping this important position. Everyone was very respectful, but at the end, every member (except for Ian Bain) took time to essentially shake their fingers at the participants and said (I'm paraphrasing), "We got mean or rude e-mails and phone calls about this. It's not okay, our feelings were hurt." A friend of mine who was there spent 12 years running a top California politician's offices and she was flabbergasted. "Really? You're in politics and having people disagree with you or be mean to you hurts your feelings? You are probably in the wrong field then." As far as limiting public reaction, I do realize that can get out of hand, but shortening the already short amount of time the public is allowed to speak is NOT democratic, but controlling and I hope this does not pass (but if only the council is voting on it, it probably will, sigh).
Eggbert November 19, 2012 at 10:35 PM
Ah, the vulgar masses. This democracy thing is so clumsy. Perhaps muzzles could be passed out to the attending public as they enter the sacred chambers.
Lou Covey, The Local Motive November 20, 2012 at 04:34 AM
This report is diametrically different than the stories in the Daily News and Daily Journal, which characterized the move as a means of taking rules from different sources and putting them in one guideline for all public meetings. I've always thought the public comment period was far too generous since there are generally only two opinions and they are repeated several times. I've found it more productive to send emails or letters to the city leaders and am able, more often then not, to get personal responses, which is always more satisfying then the non-responses they are required to give at the meetings.
Barb Valley November 20, 2012 at 05:33 AM
I think the reason this article is so different is the author didn't go to Mayor Aquirre or other City Council members to get the facts before writing but instead depended on other sources.
Jennifer van der Kleut (Editor) November 20, 2012 at 05:42 AM
Thank you everyone for your feedback. My article was written purely from reading the 11-page document. I just finished watching tonight's city council meeting and I think judging from the speakers and from other input council members may have received personally via e-mail or phone call, that it was very difficult for people to understand the tone of the document, such as how "hard and fast" the rules would be or the intentions behind why the City wanted the document written in the first place. After listening to everyone tonight, I feel (and hopefully a lot of others in the community also feel) that I understand the meaning behind the document much more clearly now - it can be so hard to know what something is thinking and intending from a written document, but so much easier when you hear them speak about it face-to-face. I hope you'll read my article tomorrow morning on what was said at the meeting, and i always welcome your feedback on this article, that article, or any other on Patch. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Carol Cross November 20, 2012 at 04:28 PM
Should the City Council enact stricter time limits and rules regarding audience reaction/participation? No. Will they? Yes. Sharon Levin's comment re: the Council reacting with "hurt feelings" brings to mind hearing that same reaction in relation to the Cargill/Saltworks project. "You've hurt our feelings" is not the proper reaction for anyone making decisions that are controversial or unpopular. Shutting down public comment will certainly help with that - to the detriment of democracy.
Buck Shaw November 20, 2012 at 07:17 PM
"Just pass it, and you can read it later"
Buck Shaw November 20, 2012 at 07:27 PM
Well Carol, there was once a Law called the "Brown Act" that did guarantee public comment. Seems a Governor "Moonbeam" and State Legislators decided to do away with it last year. Now we are seeing the results of the "Slippery Slope" they often talk about. But now that there is a Super-Majority in the State I'm sure It won't happen again. Where was the ACLU ? "Just pass it, you can read it latter"
Barb Valley November 21, 2012 at 12:51 AM
@Buck: The Brown Act has not been rescinded. The Brown Act, was an act of the California State Legislature passed in 1953, that guaranteed the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies. Cities, counties and school districts must post public meeting agendas and disclose closed session decisions. The state is supposed to pay for those expenses but the budget adopted earlier this year suspends those provisions for three years to save the state $96 million. Local newspapers as well as Redwood City Patch reported that Redwood City Officials along with those of other Peninsula cities planned to continue the transparent practices.In fact, Buck, you commented on the Patch article and said, “I don't often agree with the City Council. But they have my upmost respect for doing things right reguardless [sic].”

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