San Jose leaders push to limit council meetings that drag until midnight
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert

    After debating until midnight and cutting off public comments, San Jose lawmakers are on a mission to make City Council meetings more efficient.

    But they can’t always agree on next steps.

    City leaders on Wednesday voted 4-1 in favor of a plan forcing the San Jose City Council to contemplate its time management skills and keep meetings on schedule.

    Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilmembers David Cohen, Dev Davis and Raul Peralez voted in favor of the plan, while Councilmember Sylvia Arenas opposed. The measure was discussed by the city’s Rules and Open Government Committee, which sets the agenda for the council.

    As lawmakers debate critical policies related to COVID-19, virtual meetings are running to midnight and residents are stuck waiting hours to speak.

    Two councilmembers on opposite sides of the political aisle agree it’s a problem.

    “The uncertainty of when an item will be discussed leads to less public engagement and more dissatisfaction with the council as a governing body,” Davis and Cohen wrote in a memo.

    The pair pitched a plan Wednesday to set a time for hearing items expected to be of “greatest public interest” to give residents an idea of when they’ll be discussed. The committee approved that idea.

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    During last week’s debate about giving grocery workers hazard pay, for example, residents waited hours to speak. Then they saw their allotted two minutes slashed to one minute so the meeting didn’t run overtime — a tactic becoming more and more common in the era or Zoom council meetings.

    Some hot button issues on the agenda are given the disclaimer “not to be heard before 5 p.m.” — giving participants a general idea of when a specific topic will be debated. “Sometimes the ‘not before’ is two hours or three hours later,” Davis said. “That is not fair to our community members, who are just there for that one item.”

    Since the pandemic began, some meetings have gone over or pushed the council’s midnight curfew. Two such meetings involved a plan to provide debt relief to landlords and tenants and imposing new fees on developers to create affordable housing.

    Davis and Cohen originally suggested limiting councilmember discussion to 10 minutes with additional five minute time blocks as needed for questions and responses. But Peralez and Arenas rebuked time limits, arguing the importance of asking thorough questions and advocating for residents.

    Even after the committee revised the proposal, Arenas opposed. She said Cohen and Davis missed the point.

    “The issue is we don’t hear enough from our residents and too much from ourselves,” Arenas said.

    The council last week had a passionate 3-hour discussion about a citywide emergency rental assistance program. At one point, Arenas had the floor for nearly 20 minutes talking about the importance of the policy for low-income residents.

    Arenas admitted some of her conversations were lengthy, but said she needed to ask city officials policy questions.

    “This is not to silence anybody or to limit debate,” Davis said. “It’s the same thing we teach our kids: We got to take turns and we teach our kids that for a good reason.”

    Marathon council meetings, packed agendas and lack of time management have 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 Jones and Davis to move public comment to the start of the meeting — to avoid making residents wait for hours to speak — fell short.

    Cohen and Davis agree debate is essential for understanding and building support for a policy. But they said distributing time more evenly among councilmembers could help move votes along and allow for more public engagement.

    “I was trying to come up with a solution that wasn’t limiting anybody’s overall time because people were very touchy about that, Cohen told San José Spotlight. “But I also wanted to make sure we had a give and take conversation on the council.”

    The committee voted to bring a discussion about time management — which could include potentially limiting councilmembers’ speaking time — to the full City Council for consideration.

    Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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