In one Bay Area city, public meetings are going to run a bit differently, with more or less transparency depending on who you ask.
In a split 3-2 vote, the Los Gatos Town Council this month approved a change to the consent calendar—a list of items usually approved with a single vote of the council—that will prevent residents from pulling items for discussion. Instead, the public will have the opportunity to speak about those items at the beginning of meetings.
“The past two meetings, we’ve had our meetings go very late, and several people have pulled items off of consent,” Los Gatos Mayor Marico Sayoc told San José Spotlight. “Unfortunately, the meeting will go to 12-12:30 a.m. Their agenda item will be heard and whoever pulled it is now gone.”
Under the new rules, the council will give time on the agenda for residents to comment on any consent calendar items as a whole. Councilmembers will then decide whether or not they want specific items pulled for broader discussion. Previously, residents had to individually request items be taken off the consent calendar for a separate discussion.
Unlike larger items, which each have separate presentations and council discussions, consent calendar items are voted on all at once. The exception to an all-at-once vote is when an item is pulled for further discussion.
A city memo says the changes will make council meetings more efficient.
Some cities in Santa Clara County, such as Campbell and Santa Clara, allow residents to request to pull consent items for further consideration by the council. Los Gatos’ new rules reserve that right only for councilmembers, similar to San Jose.
Councilmember Matthew Hudes was one of two members, along with fellow Councilmember Mary Badame, to vote no on the proposed change. Hudes said he’s concerned that taking away the public’s right to pull an item off the consent calendar would lead to less trust in the council.
“Seeing each member of the council take a vote on an item, rather than being bundled and hidden with a whole list of other things is sometimes an important feature that the public is able to do here in Los Gatos that I think contributes to, frankly, democracy and the engagement of our public,” Hudes said.
Hudes added that if a resident wanted an item pulled off the consent calendar for discussion, he would do it for them.
Resident Phil Koen believes that letting only councilmembers decide what gets pulled for discussion denies the public of hearing the council’s thought process behind approving or denying items. He said the ability to pull items from the consent calendar was a valuable tool the public had to influence the council’s process.
“A council should be going the other way and protecting the rights of individuals and the public to really embrace full transparency,” Koen said, adding that the rule change would not make meetings more efficient, since consent items are rarely pulled by residents.
Sayoc, however, believes the change will contribute to more public engagement. Not only will residents get to comment on an item without having to ask for it to be pulled off the consent calendar, she said, residents will also have the opportunity to speak twice on the item: Once before it’s heard and again if a councilmember pulls it for discussion.
“We have now doubled the time a community member can speak to that item,” Sayoc said.