The first City Council meeting of September 2018 was packed with important items. The council approved a $3 billion budget for the city, it issued a reward to bring Fred Taft’s killer to justice and four council members dramatically walked out of an early morning vote in protest.
The meeting ended at 1:59 a.m., roughly nine hours after it had begun.
A month later, 4th District Councilman Daryl Supernaw requested the city review options to shorten meetings to ensure that the public could better participate in the people’s business.
Last week the city released the findings of a survey it conducted in the weeks after the request, and staff recommendations that could cut down meeting times by limiting speaking time of both council members and the public. It even includes the possibility of having council members use emojis to express how they feel about certain items.
“The whole premise of this piece is to better serve the public,” Supernaw said. “This is to ensure that for the people who attend these meetings … that they aren’t dragged out while they wait for the items they came to speak to.”
The overwhelming message from the 210 responses the city surveyed garnered was that meetings are too long and something needs to be done to shorten them. In 2018 alone there were 12 meetings that lasted longer than five hours. Seven of those meetings lasted more than seven hours, including the Sept. 4 meeting that dragged on for eight hours and 40 minutes.
City staff recommended 10 measures for immediate implementation and a handful for future adoption. Those changes include having council members meet with city staff to ask more technical questions before meetings start rather than while they’re in session, and limiting the time allocated to public presentations.
To start meetings on time, it suggested pushing unresolved closed session discussions to the end of regular council meetings. These closed sessions usually occur before council meetings.
Part of the issue is that the City Council doesn’t meet every week; it takes the last Tuesday of every month off, meaning that more votes are being crammed into fewer meetings. City staff did not recommend expanding the number of meetings to all weeks or even multiple meetings per week like some cities, including Los Angeles.
It did propose capping public comment at 90 seconds if more than 10 people line up for any given item, and a 30-minute timer for council discussion on any item. Both of these would require a change to the municipal code, but could greatly reduce the length of meetings.
Out of all 12 meetings that went over the five hour mark last year only one meeting saw the public log more talk time than the council, mayor or city staff members.
A number of recommendations seek to curtail council talking time including an expanded use of the consent calendar, where items that are non-controversial or don’t require lengthy discussion typically end up, as well as limiting the use of the supplemental agenda—used to introduce items after the original agenda has been published—to only include items that are time sensitive or urgent.
When City Council meetings are eventually moved to the new civic center, officials could also embrace new technology like kiosks for public comment sign up so the council has a better idea of how many people intend to speak, and the use of emojis flashed on a screen behind the council so members can indicate support for items without having to cue up and use mic time.
“[Emojis] wouldn’t be for all things,” said Assistant City Manager Tom Modica. “I think it’s a common courtesy that people want to say ‘Thank you for what you do’ and the emoji could be a digital ‘Thank you’ instead.”
The recommendations also include a refresher for the council on Robert’s Rules of Order, parliamentary guidelines used to govern the flow of meetings including how members are to be addressed and waiting to be recognized before speaking, a rule that is often ignored during council meetings in Long Beach.
During the October meeting where Supernaw requested the review, there was a tense exchange between he and Councilman Rex Richardson, who asked Supernaw about his statistics. Supernaw declined to answer, stating that this exchange was not adhering to Robert’s Rules and that part of what makes council meetings longer is the conversational form the policy discussions take.
“I think the best public policy happens when people have an exchange and I don’t want to sacrifice quality policy,” Richardson responded.
Richardson pointed to the challenges that many of the council members face in being a part-time council. Many have full-time jobs outside of their council obligations and family obligations and have faced an increasing workload; the council voted on over 1,000 items last year.
“This is a challenging feat, when city council meetings are limited to an average of three meetings per month, creating a natural conflict with the trend of younger, working class elected officials and commissioners who are maintaining full time jobs, and raising young families,” Richardson said. “This City Council alone has had four new babies in the last four years.”
Richardson added that there are some good ideas and efficiencies in the report but he doesn’t want to truncate the process in a way that limits engagement and thoughtful debate. He said this is a larger discussion about how the city values public engagement.
“The community needs more access the their public officials, and public officials need more time to be effective,” he said.
Supernaw said he’s willing to look at anything to streamline meetings. He noted that other councils have tried things in the past that haven’t worked out, but this council needs to be willing to try.
Even if it means using emojis.
The suggestions could be presented to the City Council as early as next month. The length of the discussion that accompanies it has yet to be determined.
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