Mitch Mankin tried twice in five days to speak to his city councilmembers about defunding the police.
But the San Jose resident, who works as a policy associate at a housing nonprofit, never got a turn during two public meetings to voice his concerns about one of the biggest debates facing the city — police reform.
“I raised my hand at one point, but I just realized it’d be so long until I’d actually be called upon,” Mankin said. “I realized I had to work, so I couldn’t sit there with my hand raised, listening the whole time, and I might miss my cue if I couldn’t listen to it.”
Mankin “raised his hand” again two hours later during the virtual City Council meeting, but the mayor cut off public comment before he could speak. With Zoom meetings, Mankin added, there’s no way to tell how long people must wait or how many speakers are ahead of them.
Mankin was one of hundreds of residents waiting to speak on the city budget for hours.
When it was finally Dione Basserri’s turn to speak, she was cut off after just 60 seconds.
“We need more time to debate how important these issues are and you gave two minutes to debating a landmark but one minute to one of the most important issues of all time – if not, our entire lifetime,” Basserri said. “We need to give more focus to people and less to things.”
While Mayor Sam Liccardo primarily controls the council meeting agendas and a committee he chairs can defer items, it appears time management has been an ongoing problem.
Tuesday’s San Jose City Council meeting was 12 hours long. A budget hearing last week dragged on for 8 hours. Two council meetings earlier in June each lasted 12 hours.
Time limits draw ire
Liccardo unilaterally decided to cut public comment to one minute during several high profile discussions, including police reform and racial equity. He also limited the time lawmakers could speak on the city’s coronavirus response.
That didn’t sit well with the public, advocates and his fellow councilmembers.
East Side Councilmember Maya Esparza questioned the mayor’s time constraints after he attempted to limit the discussion about COVID-19 to ten minutes per councilmember during a recent meeting.
Her district has the highest counts of coronavirus deaths, she argued, and criticized Liccardo for stunting the discussion.
“Our voices have been effectively silenced,” Esparza said. “I wanted to just bring up the issue that we do represent about 100,000 people in each of our districts and these are collectively the hardest hit ZIP codes in the entire county.”
The City Council last week voted 9-2 on a proposal from Esparza to eliminate the mayor’s time limits on councilmembers’ comments. The dissenters were Councilmembers Dev Davis and Johnny Khamis.
“I just don’t understand what’s behind the consistent interest in limiting debate,” said Councilmember Sergio Jimenez. “Obviously some of these meetings go a long time into the evening . . . but I’m here as a representative of the 100,000-plus residents of my district and so it’s just strange to me that we continue to go down this route.”
Despite voting to eliminate time limits, Liccardo told San José Spotlight on Sunday that time constraints for lawmakers are common in other branches of government and efficiency is key for the council to take action on problems.
“If council wants shorter meetings, each of us has the key to our own jail,” Liccardo said. “And that is to impose limits on ourselves.”
Liccardo said prolonged discussion delays staff from completing projects. “We also have to actually get people back to work, and not simply be in public hearing because we don’t actually allow our staff to do the work they currently need to do,” he said.
In addition, Liccardo said that many of the coronavirus issues that councilmembers want to discuss should be questions for Santa Clara County lawmakers.
The mayor came under fire a few years ago for council meetings that stretched until after 2 a.m., garnering criticism from residents who would wait all day to make a public comment past midnight on a weeknight. Liccardo enacted a midnight curfew and the council mulled moving public comment to the start of meetings to increase civic engagement. The council approved the curfew, but not moving public comment to the beginning of meetings.
Although Liccardo has reasoned that time limits are necessary to finish meetings before curfew and get city staff to work, some have questioned which topics he chooses to limit discussion on.
But Liccardo said on Sunday that the councilmembers who questioned limiting their own time did not object to cutting down public comment. That’s more problematic, the mayor added.
“I am more concerned about the fact that we have to limit public comment in a moment of serious public concern,” Liccardo said.
Suspending sunshine laws
Time limits are not the only obstacle to public participation in meetings. The transition to remote work because of COVID-19 has obscured transparency after city leaders suspended “sunshine” laws that require releasing meeting agendas and reports 72 hours before meetings.
The City Council voted to allow documents related to COVID-19 to be released the same day as meetings, waiving the 72-hour deadline.
David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the mayor can legally make concessions, such as limiting public comment, to move the meeting forward but he should ensure that all voices are heard.
“It’s very clear that the city and all bodies subject to the Brown Act have some leeway to limit time based on practical consideration,” Snyder said.
Stifling public participation
But drawn-out meetings stifle public participation, said former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. During his eight years, he hardly had council meetings extend into the wee hours of the morning.
Although Reed praised Liccardo for attempting to make discussions more efficient, he said late night meetings can be avoided by deferring certain items to future meetings.
“We had very few meetings that went past midnight. Even though we didn’t have a rule against it, we had a practice against it,” Reed said. “We just said look, we’re going to postpone a couple items on the agenda to next week. We’ll set up maybe an extra meeting or something. We’re just not going to take this up because we know it’s going to be after midnight when we get done and there’s five more things.”
Liccardo worried that deferring too many items could result in issues piling up.
“There’s no magic in it, because if you defer it, you still have to hear it the next week,” Liccardo said.
Still, the marathon council meetings wear down city leaders and the public, Reed said.
“There’s important public policy here . . . nothing good happens after 10 p.m., and only bad things happen after midnight,” Reed told San José Spotlight. “The public loses interest and can’t participate. People have to leave.”
Reporter Nadia Lopez contributed to this report.
Contact Mauricio La Plante at email@example.com or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.