Eye on Sacramento Asks City Council to Restore 3-Minute Time Limit on Citizen Comments

MEDIA RELEASE

For Immediate Release
Contacts:
Craig Powell, President, Eye on Sacramento (EOS)
Phone: (916) 718-3030; E-mail: craig@eyeonsacramento.org
Dennis Neufeld, EOS Board Member
Phone: (916) 539-1054; E-mail: d-neufeld@comcast.net
Website: www.eyeonsacramento.org
Date: March 5, 2013; 10:45 a.m.

Eye on Sacramento Asks City Council to Restore 3-Minute Time Limit on Citizen Comments;
Research Shows Change Would Lengthen Council Meetings By Just 21 Minutes

Eye on Sacramento (EOS) is asking the Sacramento city council to increase from two minutes to three minutes the time it allows citizens to speak at city council meetings, returning the council to a time limit that was in place for several decades before Mayor Kevin Johnson took office in 2009.

In a letter delivered to the mayor and city council yesterday, EOS president Craig Powell said, “We have observed that the quality of the public comments that you receive has demonstrably eroded since the adoption of the two-minute rule as it does not provide enough time for concerned speakers to coherently articulate their thoughts on matters of importance to them and the City.”

EOS is only seeking an increase in the time limit for citizens who are addressing the council on matters on the council’s meeting agendas. It is not seeking an increase in speaking time for speakers commenting on matters not on the council’s agendas.

EOS also released a report on its latest research on the subject. Findings include:

– Restoring the 3-minute time limit would likely increase the average length of city council meetings by 13% or just 21 minutes.

– The average length of city council meetings over the past four years has been 2 hrs., 41 min., down from 5 hrs., 24 min. during the final four years of Heather Fargo’s tenure as mayor, a remarkable 50% reduction.

– In the last six months of 2012, city council meetings averaged just 1 hr., 50 minutes, a 32% drop from the average meeting time over the past four years.

– Sacramento is the only government in the greater Sacramento region that has a speaker limit below 3 minutes.

– Of eight California cities of comparable size, only Sacramento and Oakland have speakers limits below 3 minutes.

The city council is expected to take up changes to its council rules in the next week or two. EOS’s letter to the mayor and city council is attached, as well as its research reports on the topic.

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March 4, 2013

HAND-DELIVERED & VIA E-MAIL

Honorable Mayor Kevin Johnson and Honorable

Members of the Sacramento City Council

New City Hall, Fifth Floor

915 I Street

Sacramento, CA 95814

Re: Change of Time Limits on Comments at Council Meetings

At your February 12th meeting, you discussed possible changes to  your “Council Rules of Procedure” (Item #1; Report #2013-00098”).  As you may recall, Eye on Sacramento representatives provided you with testimony and research findings that found the Sacramento is the only city, county or governmental jurisdiction within the greater Sacramento region with a public comment time limit of less than three (3) minutes.   Sacramento is also the only one of eight cities of comparable size in California with a two-minute time limit other than Oakland.  All other comparative-sized California cities provide their citizens with a three-minute time limit on public comments.  A copy of our initial research findings (“Public Comment Time Limits by City”) is enclosed.

We have since completed additional research on the subject.  In particular, we’ve studied the impact a return of the three-minute time limit would likely have on the length of your Council meetings.  Our additional research is detailed on the enclosed “Analysis of Impact of Rule Change on Duration of Council Meetings.”

Our latest research has found that the 202 Council meetings held during the past four years  had an average length of 2-hrs 41-minutes.   For a one-year sample period (July 2011 thru June 2012; 49 meetings), we found that, on average, only 21 speakers commented on Consent Calendar and Public Discussion items at each meeting (1058 total comments).  If those speakers had been allowed three minutes to speak instead of two, your average meeting length would have increased by only 21 minutes, to an average length of 3-hours 2-minutes, a modest lengthening (13%) of your meetings’ duration.

We respectfully request that speaker comment time limits be returned to their long- established duration of three (3) minutes for comments on both the consent calendar and the discussion calendar.

We have observed that the quality of the public comments that you receive has demonstrably eroded since the adoption of the two-minute rule as it does not provide enough time for concerned speakers to coherently articulate their thoughts on matters of importance to them and the City.  When the Council again takes up the matter of your Council Rules, we ask that you include the following specific changes to your Rules:

Section B.2.b – “Consent Calendar speakers are . . . subject to the three (3) minute time limit for the entire Consent Calendar.”

Section B.2.c – “Discussion Calendar Items.  Three (3) minutes per speaker.”

Please note that we are not requesting an increase in speaker time for public comments on matters not on the council’s agenda.

Citizen comments to the City Council are a vital portal to citizen democracy, possibly the only route that still retains people’s confidence.  We feel it would be in the best interest of the City, its citizens and the City Council itself to champion and protect meaningful democratic accessibility for your constituents.  We believe Sacramentans would cheer your efforts.

If you would like to discuss this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me on my direct line at (916) 718-3030 or via e-mail (craig@eyeonsacramento.org).  Thank you.

 

Very truly yours,

____________________________________

Craig Powell,  President

Enclosures

cc: City Manager John Shirey (w/encl.)

City Clerk Shirley Concolino (w/encl.)

City Attorney James C. Sanchez (w/encl.)

CKP/lm

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Analysis of Impact of Rule Change on Duration of Council Meetings

Sacramento City Council History on Public Comment Policy

  • For decades, policy at council meetings allowed 3-minutes per speaker for public comments on both agenda, non-agenda, and discussion items.
  • On May 15, 2007 Council Rules, Chapter 8-Conduct of Meeting, (D.2. a.) read as follows: “Each speaker shall limit his/her remarks to three (3) minutes.”  (D.2.b.): “A three minute countdown display will be activated at the start of a speaker’s comments.”
  • On 1-13-09, Mayor Kevin Johnson, soon after assuming office, asked for a reduction of the speaker time limit to two minutes.
  • 1-13-09 draft amended Council Rules included the change to two minutes.  Final approved language modified from two minutes to: “specified time allotment.”  From this date forward, Mayor Johnson enforced a two-minute speaker time limit.
  • On 1-10-12, council significantly changed the Rules.  Speaker time limits were moved from Chapter 8 to Chapter 5, with more detailed speaker time limits.  A new Section B, “Addressing the City Council”, was added:
    • Section (B.2.a.), speaker time limits, reads: “Matters not on the Agenda. Two (2) minutes per speaker.”
    • Section (B.2.b.) reads: “Consent Calendar . . . speakers are . . . subject to the two (2) minute time limit for the entire Consent Calendar. . .”
    • Section (B.2.c.) reads: “Discussion Calendar Items. Two (2) minutes per speaker.”
    • Section (B.2.d.) was added: “In addition to the above time limits per item, the total amount of time any one individual may address the Council at any meeting is eight (8) minutes.

 

Comparing Sacramento’s Public Comment Time Limits to Other Cities

  • Sacramento is the only county city with 2-minute limits.  (See attached matrix)
  • Several cities in region have 5-minute time limits.
  • Of eight (8) other similar-sized cities in California, only one has less than three-minute time limits for public comment. (Oakland)
  • Comparing capital cities, Oregon’s city of Salem allows 3-minutes.

Comparisons of Council Meeting Durations, Mayors Fargo & Johnson

Eye on Sacramento (EOS) researched average city council meeting durations for Mayors Heather Fargo and Kevin Johnson.  Those findings:

  • With equal samples of 4-years, Ms. Fargo’s meetings averaged 5-hours, 24-minutes (January 2005 through December 2008; 195 Mtgs.)
  • Mr. Johnson’s meetings averaged 2-hours, 41-minutes (January 2009–December 2012; 202 Mtgs.)
  • Mr. Johnson’s meetings averaged 2-hours, 43-minutes shorter than Ms. Fargo’s. For last six-months of 2012, meetings averaged 1-hr, 50-minutes.

Public Speakers at Mr. Johnson’s Council Meetings, July 2011 through June 2012

  • For Matters Not on the Agenda, 645 people spoke, for an average of 13 speakers per meeting. (Total of 49 meetings)
  • For Consent Calendar and Public Hearings, 1,058 speakers addressed the council, averaging 21 per meeting.
  • One speaker addressed the council 135 times during this one-year period.
  • Adding 645 plus 1,058, total speakers = 1,703 for the most recent fiscal year.
  • If each speaker spoke 3-minutes rather than 2-minutes, 1,703 additional minutes would have been added to the 49 meetings, or 35-minutes per meeting.
  • However, if a 3-minute time limit were applied only to speakers commenting on agenda items, the average meeting length would be 3 hours, 2 minutes, an increase of only 21 minutes.
  • Mr. Johnson’s meetings would, even with a return to a 3-minute speaker time limit, increase, on average, to 3 hours, 2 minutes, still more than 2-hours shorter than the average length of Ms. Fargo’s meetings.

The Brown Act:

  • This Act provides no specific time limits for public comment.  Its applicable language: “Every agenda for regular 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. . .” (Govt. Code, § 54954.3 (a))
  • The other important Brown Act paragraph: “The Legislative body of a local agency may adopt reasonable regulations to ensure that the intent of [this legislation] is carried out, including . . . regulations limiting the total amount of time.”
  • Research from the First Amendment Coalition states: “The Attorney General has concluded that five minutes per speaker may be reasonable, but many if not most agencies appear to keep the speaker limit to three minutes per agenda item.”

 

Sources: Sacramento city clerk’s council archives.  Various city websites and EOS phone calls to city clerks of some identified cities.  Personal visits to some city halls.