Council Action May 14: Some Supernaw-Sought/City Staff-Suggested Council Meeting "Streamlining" Rules Could Significantly Limit Public's Ability To Speak On Agendized Items Of Public's Business At Council Meetings
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(May 12, 2019, 8:05 p.m.) -- On May 14, the Long Beach City Council could vote to direct the City Attorney to draft an ordinance (with enactment requiring two further Council votes) that could further restrict, and in some cases could be used to prevent entirely, public testimony on some agendized items at Long Beach City Council meetings.
The item originated with an Oct. 23, 2018 request by 4th dist. Councilman Daryl Supernaw who said he wanted to curtail lengthy Council meetings by "streamlining" them to increase "efficiency." Supernaw (who ruled out returning to four-Council meetings a month which the Council did until about 15 years ago) asked the offices of the City Manager, Mayor, City Clerk and City Attorney to seek "best practices" elsewhere. That resulted in a March 1, 2019 memo to the Mayor and Council listing a number of recommended actions, which city management has now agendized for May 14 Council approval, modifications/changes or rejection.
LBREPORT.com reports them below in bold-face as listed in management's May 14 agendizing memo. LBREPORT.com's analysis/comments follow in smaller italics below.
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1. Utilize staff to answer questions prior to the City Council meeting;
The measure doesn't provide the public with access to questions the Councilmembers ask and city staff's responses prior to the Council meeting. Councilmembers already have access to such information but don't routinely share it with the public prior to Council meetings. Such information could [and in our opinion should have been] be added to the City Clerk's online agenda materials. The item also gives city staff additional opportunities to influence (and unspoken: gain tacit Councilmember approval for) staff-desired items before taxpayer/public testimony responding to (and in some cases questioning or refuting) city staff's assertions.
2. Set scheduled time and time limits for ceremonials/presentations to create predictability for that part of the agenda; City staff has suggested five minutes per item [which in our opinion seems reasonable.]
3. Formalize a policy for public comment when large crowds are present; This item invites the Council to erase public's current LB Municipal Code right to speak for three minutes unless shortened or extended on individual items by the Council. It proposes to do so on items that they draw large crowds, but such items are arguably precisely the items on which the Council should respect the public's desire to be heard. They're often complex, including citywide impacting policies, neighborhood-impacting developments, land use/zoning changes, EIRs and City Hall-sought tax increases/ballot measures.
At the same time, the City has separately made it more difficult for the public to express its views. Non-elected city staff quietly issued an administrative edict (avoiding public discussion thus far by LB's elected Councilmembers) that blocks the public (except for parties in formal hearings) from using the Council Chamber's taxpayer-paid video display equipment to express its views. This is contrary to efficiency because it prevents the public from reducing words to convey a point (as one picture could tell a thousand words.) [LBREPORT.com separately believes the policy has first amendment implications, beyond the scope of this article.]
Nor is the "e-notify" comment system a substitute to hearing the public speak. E-notify doesn't let the public see and hear the views of others, from persuading others, and allows Councilmembers to easily ignore "E-notify" messages (with no one else seeing/hearing them.) City staff recommends amending LB's Municipal Code to automatically impose restrictions on future items paralleling those basically invented by Mayor Garcia on some recent items and applied with Council approval: cutting public testimony in half to 90 seconds per speaker each after ten speakers have spoken. However LB's incumbent Councilmembers have also displayed a willingness to be even less tolerant of public speakers; on May 7, they let Mayor Garcia cut all public speakers on one item to 90 seconds (allowed the minimal standards of CA's Brown [open meetings] Act which doesn't specify any specific numerical amount of time for public testimony.)
4. Additional use of the Consent Calendar for items that generally require less discussion; This item restricts public testimony in ways not discussed in city staff's memo. By pushing more items into the "consent calendar" -- on which city officials claim there's no need for Council discussion unless requested by a Councilmember -- city officials allow themselves to prevent the public from participating on items admittedly requiring Council voted approval. LB's current Municipal Code only lets the public speak for three minutes on ALL items placed by city officialdom on the consent calendar. By expanding the total number of "consent calendar" items -- for which staff proposes to broadly include "grant applications, contracts, and receive and file reports" -- the Council would prevent taxpayer/public oversight and objections to potentially costly and impactful items by preventing the public from speaking for more than 180 seconds on ALL of the expanded items.
In addition, expanding the consent calendar would allow Councilmembers avoid even more separately recorded votes on items the public may consider significant (that city staff or electeds may want to avoid). That's because under LB's current Municipal Code, changed under Mayor Foster by a now-former Council, only Councilmembers (not the public) can "pull" items for separately voted action.
5. Adopt Consent Calendar prior to 6:30 p.m. to create predictability for that portion of the meeting; Appears basically benign and overdue.
6. Adhere to posted agenda order as much as possible Appears basically benign and overdue.
7. Create a process to remind the Council after Council discussion has reached 30 minutes, and ask the body for direction as to whether to proceed with a vote or continue debate We believe Robert's Rules of Order already allow this (with the caveat that it shouldn't be used oppressively to prevent legitimate discussion.) A 30 minute limit may invite a Council majority to "gang up" on a Council minority to cut-off discussion of controversial matters a majority may want to limit or prevent extended discussion.
8. Increase use of City Council Committees to hear public comment for large and controversial items; This item could significantly reduce, or depending on the Council's coming actions could even potentially prevent, the public's current right to address the Council on major items.
City staff's March 1 memo recommends using Council Committees (three-members chosen by the Mayor, as few as two members present to conduct Committee meetings) for what it calls "issues on which significant public comment is expected." It marks the first time in our memory that the Council has been publicly invited to exploit a loophole in CA's Brown (open meetings) Act to significantly limit public testimony at City Council meetings on major items.
CA Gov't Code section 54954.3 (a) provides that every agenda for regular Council meetings "shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body on any item of interest to the public, before or during the legislative body’s consideration of the item." BUT it also goes on to state: "However, the agenda need not provide an opportunity for members of the public to address the legislative body on any item that has already been considered by a committee, composed exclusively of members of the legislative body, at a public meeting wherein all interested members of the public were afforded the opportunity to address the committee on the item, before or during the committee’s consideration of the item, unless the item has been substantially changed since the committee heard the item, as determined by the legislative body."
City staff's March 1 memo "recommends" exploiting this loophole to send major items to Council committee and then limit public testimony to 90 seconds or to 60 seconds [instead of three minutes] when the items return for action at full Council meetings. That itself would be a major reduction in the public's ability to address the full decisionmaking Council on major items, but to our knowledge there's nothing to stop the Council from using this loophole to write an ordinance that could simply prevent the public from speaking on items that the Mayor/Council have already sent to a Council committee (where three Councilmembers but as few as two can conduct Committee business.)
It's true that the Council can already do limit the public in this way, but (again to our knowledge) this marks the first time that the Committee process and the Brown Act loophole are explicitly proposed as a way to reduce the public's ability to be heard -- and to have other LB residents hear them -- on agendized Council items. Remember: the Mayor chooses Council Committee members and Committee chairs (the latter decide Committee agendas and control proceedings at Committee meetings), and this new provision would enable the Mayor and/or his Council allies to decide who hears the public, at what times and on what terms...Committee meetings are generally held during working hours, preventing many members of the public from attending.
In addition, the city's webcasts of Committee meetings don't show the person speaking (only their back from a distance using the fixed camera at the back of the Council Chamber.) They also don't display Power Point slides shown by city staff. To show these items would require additional staffing -- presumably at additional taxpayer cost to run the main Council Chamber's cameras -- meaning the public would end up paying more to implement a change that reduces the public's current speaking rights. We don't know yet how the soon to debut new "Bob Foster Civic Chamber" near the Garcia-Mungo million dollar media wall (Garcia approved, his "Budget Oversight Committee" chair Mungo made the motion) will be wired up.
9. Refocus use of Supplemental Agenda for items of urgency only; to allow non-urgent items to have more time for preparation and questions; The "Supplemental Agenda" is effectively a "surprise" agenda disclosed to the public with minimal notice. In that respect, city staff's recommendation to "[t]o return to the original intent of the Supplemental Agenda" doesn't go far enough. Staff only recommends requiring "supplemental" items have a Statement of Urgency to "clarify why the item is urgent and must be heard at the next meeting. If there is not a sufficient Statement of Urgency, the City Council may call a 'point of order' and require a two- thirds vote at the meeting to hear a supplemental item." In LBREPORT.com's view, the "statement of urgency" and the 2/3 vote requirement can both be easily circumvented with rubberstamp Council approval (afraid to offend the Supplemental item's agendizers) which would leave the public with minimal notice of upcoming items.
10. Continue Closed Session at the end of City Council meetings, if required. Appears benign and overdue.
1. Hold a Robert's Rules of Order refresher and consider alternative streamlined rules;
Elected officials should at minimum be expected to understand, respect and follow Robert's Rules of Order. We have no idea what staff means by "consider alternative streamlined rules" for future implementation.
To promote efficiency, the Council should ensure that the public has the ability (blocked by city staff without Council discussion some months ago) to use the Council Chamber's video display to illustrate and convey information in connection with public testimony (including minimum technical requirements.)
3. Electronic board to announce the City Council meeting agenda order. Appears benign.
None of the Supernaw-sought/city staff recommended rules propose to restore public rights -- including the right to agendize items -- erased by actions of previous Councils and not restored by the current Council.
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