At the end of a recent San Jose City Council meeting, Andrew Boone stepped up the podium to address the councilors. He had to wait seven hours to speak his mind on an issue not on the agenda that evening.
Compared to other marathon council meetings, this one ended early — adjourning around 8:30 p.m. But it isn’t the first time residents were forced to wait half a day — or more — to publicly speak before their legislators, sometimes taking the podium close to midnight.
“This open forum that we have at the end of the meeting, it’s better than not having it at all, but it’s really not useful if it is not at the beginning of the meeting like every single other city does,” he told the council.
San Jose starts its City Council meetings every Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. and has a midnight curfew. And while the public has a chance to chime in during the meeting on issues on the agenda, they must wait until the final minutes to speak about non-related items.
“You’re all here assembled so I think you should take public comment at the beginning of the meeting,” Boone argued. “What it looks like to me is that you’re doing it intentionally. You can simply move the open forum item of the meeting and you simply don’t do it.”
San Jose, which prides itself on “sunshine” transparency and open government policies, has become an anomaly when it comes to public comment. Legislators in 14 other cities in Santa Clara County hear general comment at the beginning of their meetings. Most limit each speaker to a certain amount of time and Los Gatos and Sunnyvale limit that portion of the meeting to 30 minutes total.
This isn’t the first time San Jose has come under fire for making the public wait all night to speak.
As part of a proposal to set a midnight meeting curfew in 2017, Councilmember Dev Davis and Vice Mayor Chappie Jones also tried to move up the public comment period to the beginning of the meeting.
While the curfew ultimately passed, the initiative to move up public comments was killed by the council’s Rules committee, which sets the agenda for each meeting.
Davis told San José Spotlight that the meetings weren’t always set up this way.
“I think it was under Chuck Reed,” she recalled. “People would come for that first five minutes and it would be that 200 people would come. It would take up so much meeting time for things that were on the agenda.”
Davis said she sees both sides of the argument now and said there are other ways for the public to contact their councilmember.
Glen Smith, a legal fellow at the First Amendment Coalition, said forcing people to wait around the entire meeting can be an “exercise in futility.” But Smith conceded that there’s nothing in the state’s public meeting law that requires San Jose to put the general comment section at the beginning of meetings.
“I think it is important for there to be an opportunity for meaningful public comment,” he said. “And if 99.9 percent of your meetings are lasting until 11 p.m. or midnight, there is no meaningful opportunity there.”
When Davis and Jones first proposed the change, Mayor Sam Liccardo expressed concerns that individuals could “game” the system to filibuster important votes.
Two years later, and his position has remained the same.
“We have to prioritize the purpose of this public forum, which is for us to hear from residents about those issues that are impacting their lives, over those residents who simply want to talk about Donald Trump or whatever’s on their mind,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight.
Contact Grace Hase at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.