San Jose councilmembers will only have 10 minutes to speak
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert

All night marathon San Jose City Council meetings could soon be a thing of the past.

Councilmembers David Cohen and Dev Davis authored a plan to place time limits for lawmakers to speak during council meetings. The proposal, which passed on a 9-2 vote Tuesday, would give each councilmember 10 minutes to speak on an item during an initial round. Once all members who wish to speak have spoken, the council will begin a new round with the same 10-minute limit. There are no limits to the number of rounds an item can go through.

Councilmembers Sylvia Arenas and Maya Esparza dissented.

“I don’t want to stay here until midnight every day,” Davis told her colleagues. “I don’t think that’s doing the public a service, I don’t think it’s doing our exhausted staff a service and I don’t think it’s doing all of you a service.”

Presentations from city officials will also be time-limited, with estimates printed on each council agenda. The new time restrictions will last until lawmakers meet in person again. The council will also consider other measures to reformat City Council meetings, including having shorter, multiple meetings during the week or having the closed sessions happen on a different day.

“The more participation in debate from councilmembers, the better the outcome,” Cohen said.

Councilmembers will not be required to use all—or any—of the time allotted to them, and debate can end any time they’re ready to vote.

The proposal garnered significant pushback from some members of the council’s Latino Caucus, who believe restricting discussion would stifle the city’s most vulnerable voices—people of color and low-income workers, who often don’t have the time or means to tune into a meeting to speak out on issues.

“These are the folks who are living in overcrowded living situations, folks that we rely on as essential workers, these are folks that even in the best of times have a difficult time getting to a council meeting,” Esparza said. “Democracy is worth spending time on.”

Council meetings often stretch well into the night each Tuesday. Items that are anticipated to have more public interest are often heard in the afternoon with a “time certain” — which means they won’t be discussed before a certain time. That means contentious issues, like new affordable housing projects, large spending proposals and policy items can stretch the meeting to midnight.

In an effort to make councilmembers aware of how much time they’re eating up, a timer has been placed on the virtual dais. Councilmembers often voluntarily limit their speaking time, but no hard and fast rules have governed how much time they’re allotted.

Marathon council meetings and packed agendas have long plagued Mayor Sam Liccardo’s administration.

The council in 2017 set a midnight curfew after City Council meetings regularly dragged until 2 a.m. A few months later, councilmembers blew right past the curfew. And previous attempts that year by Davis and Vice Mayor Chappie Jones to move public comment to the start of the meeting — to avoid making residents wait for hours to speak — fell short.

Liccardo, a vocal supporter of the item Tuesday, said that too much late-night discussion takes away from important voices in the room—city officials and the public.

“Our most important work is involved in the decisions we make … it’s far less about us being heard,” Liccardo said.

Arenas proposed that unused time from councilmembers be given to other city officials or to public comment, possibly increasing public comment from the current two minutes to three minutes per speaker.

“Are we reducing the time with each other simply because we want to have a shorter meeting, or is it because we want to have additional input come in from the community directly?” Arenas asked.

Those in support of the item, like Councilmembers Sergio Jimenez and Matt Mahan, believed time limits would actually enhance discussion on items, as information would be delivered more concisely and more councilmembers, city officials and residents would be able to speak.

The new rules will take effect immediately.

Similar restrictions on speaking have been implemented in various legislative bodies, most notably the United States Congress, where “controlled time” rules have governed both houses of Congress for decades.

A recent report on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors showed that the seven men on the 11-member board dominated speaking time, another point the San Jose council took into consideration. Some on the council feared that even with speaking limits, voices from women and other underrepresented groups could be drowned out.

“These are life and death decisions,” Esparza said. “If they take time, so be it.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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