It’s a good problem to have.
That is the common refrain from officials balancing the additional time needed to accommodate the surging community engagement invited by allowing remote participation in public meetings amid the pandemic.
But with legislation proposed to preserve the public’s ability to join meetings virtually even after the public health crisis resides, local officials are taking varied approaches to solving the time management quagmire.
In the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District, officials recently examined a proposal to cap public comment during meetings at 20 minutes with hopes of limiting how late sessions run into the night.
The idea arrived in the wake of officials hosting a series of meetings spanning several hours and featuring dozens of participants commenting remotely, the longest of which concluded around 2 a.m.
Acknowledging that marathon meetings are onerous for all involved, board President Ken Chin said he was reticent to establish the time limit on public comment for fear of stifling public participation.
But he acknowledged officials throughout the region will have to strike the appropriate balance of preserving remote public comment while also managing meeting time.
“It’s really an awesome problem to have,” he said. “It’s just, how do we navigate this in the future?”
Assembly Bill 339
To assure remote public participation is allowed after the threat of the pandemic subsides and meetings move from online to in-person again, Assemblymember Alex Lee, D-San Jose, proposed Assembly Bill 339.
The legislation would require counties or cities with at least 250,000 residents to continue allowing participants to comment remotely during meetings from the comfort of their own home.
Online commenting has made way for more diverse perspectives in local government, said Lee, because those who didn’t have time to spend several hours at city hall waiting to speak on a single issue are more available virtually.
With a belief that more engagement is good for democracy, Lee looked to make permanent a silver lining coming out of the pandemic.
“This is the time where we codify that,” he said.
His proposal has been met with opposition from critics who consider it an unfunded mandate from the state and claim the financial burden of acquiring technology needed to facilitate virtual comment is too great.
Lee called the opposition ridiculous, and noted a significant investment would likely only need to be made once with a nominal ongoing cost to preserve the online access.
What’s more, he said officials should embrace the chance to acquire systems guaranteed to assure more constituents are willing and able to participate in the public realm.
“I think too much public comment is a fantastic problem to have,” he said.
He also acknowledged the concerns regarding meeting time, but said officials have the authority to responsibly amend the amount of public comment allowed to assure sessions run smooth.
For instance, he said elected officials running a meeting can trim the allowed public comment time on a popular item down from the standard three minutes to one or two minutes, if necessary.
But as those decisions are sometimes required in the interest of time management, Lee urged officials to be thoughtful and considerate of how such decisions can be interpreted by the public.
“Those 30 seconds to someone who has taken the time and has the courage to speak up to elected officials mean the world to them,” he said.
Limited public comment
As officials locally attempt to make way for public comment while also assuring meetings end at a reasonable hour, cities across the Peninsula have adopted different approaches.
In Redwood City, councilmembers agreed in April to cut the time allotted for public comment from three minutes to two minutes while also moving meeting start times up from 7 p.m. to 6 p.m. every other Monday.
When proposing the policy amendments, officials stressed the desire to ensure community engagement, grant enough time to agenda items and end meetings at a reasonable time.
Public comment time in Redwood City doubled from 2019 to 2020, said officials, and some meetings featured as many as 50 public speakers commenting remotely during a meeting.
In South San Francisco last August, officials also attempted to overhaul the public comment system due to meeting time concerns.
Residents were instructed to leave voicemails on a hotline or send their comments to city email accounts, which City Clerk Rosa Acosta would direct to councilmembers, upload to the city’s website and also read into the record during meetings.
Community members disliked the shift though, claiming it muffled their voices and interrupted their ability to speak directly to officials during a critical time when the pandemic was raging and a social justice movement took shape.
In response, officials resurrected the live, remote public comment and residents are again able to participate virtually during meetings.
Notably, there is limited correlation between the amount of public speakers participating during a South San Francisco City Council meeting and the time of the session.
While there was a surge in public participation during June of last year, with meetings featuring 21, 33 and 54 speakers — sessions ran an average of three hours and 12 minutes, according to documents from the clerk’s office.
Meanwhile in November and December of the same year, meetings which featured as few as four or five speakers, and occasionally none, lasted two hours and 48 minutes.
Time management strategies
Rather than limiting public comment time and potentially disengaging residents, some local officials favor looking to other ways of shortening meetings.
Maurice Goodman, San Mateo County Community College District trustee, suggested a bevy of options that officials could consider as alternatives to assure meetings don’t run late into the night.
“It’s easy to shut out the pubic but that is not something you should be OK with,” he said.
Assuring agendas aren’t packed with too many meaty issues, reading the materials in advance to allow for brief staff reports and discouraging pontification among elected officials are among the options identified by Goodman.
For his part, Goodman questioned how officials could justify solely limiting public comment without also examining the variety of options under their control.
“How do you look at that as the only reason for meetings going over time? When the purpose is to do the public’s work in public and give them the opportunity to feel included and participate,” he said.
Chin concurred, and said agenda construction and meeting management must be considered by officials concerned about time.
“I think that there is an opportunity as we come out of this post-pandemic school year that we look at how agendas are structured because there is absolutely room for us to make changes and be more efficient,” he said.
Moving meeting times earlier, limiting ceremonial presentations and spacing out critical issues on the meeting calendar are also options noted by Chin to assure efficiency.
Looking ahead though, he expressed confidence that officials throughout the region would continue refining the matter as urgent issues related to the pandemic relent.
“I honestly think public comment and meetings will evolve this year and into the next,” he said.