City Council moves forward with effort to rein in length of meetings

Sometimes sitting through a Long Beach City Council meeting can feel like an endurance test. First there are the aged chairs that creak and groan and poke their hosts; there is the ban on food in the chambers—and the hours of dialogue often lasting late into the night.

The length of City Council meetings has on occasion pushed the people’s business—normally discussed and settled on Tuesday nights—into Wednesday mornings, when votes are taken before empty council chambers and only the diehard activists still tuned in on the city’s live-stream.

Tuesday night the City Council took what could be a first step toward shortening these epic displays of local governance by asking the city manager, city clerk, city attorney and the mayor to look into how meetings can be streamlined in the future.

The suggestion came from Fourth District Councilman Daryl Supernaw, who said that on average council meetings have lasted about four hours and 20 minutes in 2018, with the one-third of those meetings lasting until after 11:30 p.m.

City Council meetings typically start at 5 p.m. every Tuesday of the month excluding the last Tuesday of each month, which is known as “Dark Tuesday.” Some council members use the week off as an opportunity to host community meetings with their constituents or to secure the council chamber for committee hearings.

“It’s great that anyone can come and speak for three minutes, but to have a real dialogue with the community there have to be dates for that,” said Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo.

A number of ideas were introduced by the City Council as ways to shorten meetings. Supernaw suggested a “shot-clock” of sorts that would go off when a council member’s time for speaking has expired.

Limiting public comment time could also be a tool used by the mayor to shorten meetings. While Mayor Robert Garcia has been consistent in granting members of the public a full three minutes—double that if speaking through a translator—the Ralph M. Brown Act, which sets the rules for public meetings, allows for governing bodies to augment the length of public comment.

Garcia has limited comment in the past, knocking it down to two or one minute, but that almost always occurred after hours of public comment had already been given on the same topic. Other bodies throughout the city regularly cut public comment time to less than three minutes, but it’s unclear if this is an avenue the city will explore.

Bringing in a person certified in parliamentary rules to train the council in how they should be conducting meetings was also suggested.

Second District Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce said that the council could look at starting some hearings before the regular 5 p.m. start time and that having staff reports given to the council before meetings rather than at meetings.

“It’s difficult sometimes to digest them while also engaging in the debate about it and then being required to vote on it that same time,” Pearce said.

A member of the public brought up the idea that the City Council, which is a part-time body in Long Beach, might think about making the transition to full-time. The City of Los Angeles employs a full-time City Council and it typically meets three times per week.

In 2018 those three meetings averaged between four and five hours total with the longest cumulative meeting time in a week eclipsing the nine-hour mark twice.

Councilman Rex Richardson also raised the idea of meeting more often, pointing to a possible elimination of Dark Tuesday as a way that the council could better distribute its agenda items and cut down on meeting lengths.

“There’s only so much in terms of pie,” Richardson said. “So we either grow the pie or we slice up the pie and give people less. And what I don’t want to do is to give less to the public.”

With the vote Tuesday night will come the creation of an email portal where residents can send in recommendations and thoughts on the proposal to shorten and streamline council meetings. A report is expected back in the next 90 days.

The conversation to get to the vote lasted 35 minutes.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.