Cue the music: Council cuts public comment time to three minutes

Claremont resident Douglas Lyon speaks during public comment at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Courier photo/Steven Felschundneff

by Steven Felschundneff |

The Claremont City Council agreed Tuesday to shorten from four to three minutes the amount of time each person would be allowed to speak during public comment at future meetings.

Although the council discussed the matter, it declined a roll call vote, leaving the final decision to Mayor Ed Reece because of the long-standing tradition that the mayor runs council meetings. The decision will apply to all Brown Actmeetings including the City Council and all commissions.

Council members Corey Calaycay and Jennifer Stark had requested that shortening the time for each speaker’s participation be placed on a City Council agenda after Reece brought up the idea as one way to keep meetings from stretching long into the night.

“At its regular city council meeting on July 11, the meeting lasted more than seven hours and at the following meeting on July 25th Mayor Reece proposed changing the public comments speaker time limit for four minutes to three minutes for City Council meetings and all other Brown Act meetings hosted by the city of Claremont,” City Manager Adam Pirrie said during the staff presentation.

Over the past 12 months, nine city council meetings adjourned after 9:30 p.m. and four of those ended at or after midnight, according to Pirrie. Commission meetings have ended at late hours as well.

“Staff experience is when meetings run late into the evening or early morning hours, that can be challenging for community members with work, family and other commitments to fully participate and provide public comment and be present for council deliberations,” Pirrie said.

Not everyone was happy with the decision.

“I think this is perfectly, exactly the wrong direction to go,” said Parker Emerson. “The purpose of having public hearing is to have public input, and your suggestion is ‘Well, let’s limit [it] because we have to stay up late.’ That is the price we pay for being on the council or commissions.”

Emerson is the chair of the planning commission, but he was speaking on Tuesday as a resident of Claremont.

“Imagine what your discussions would be like if you say, ‘Ah, the council can only speak to this topic for three minutes,’” Emerson said. “Discussion ends after three minutes. That is what you are telling the public. ‘We don’t want much input we just want to go through he motions of hearing you.’”

Shortening the time each person can speak could also provide the opportunity for more people to participate, particularly during the general public comment at the beginning of each council meeting, which has a 30-minute time limit. At four minutes, typically seven people get to speak during general public comment, but at three minutes 10 would be able to address the council.

Others were also critical of the move.

“Public comment is to hear from the public,” said Claremont resident Douglas Lyon. “Let’s say hypothetically you had 30 speakers all speaking for four minutes and now you are going to cut it down to three minutes. That means you are shortening the evening by 30 minutes. Okay, so your meeting doesn’t end at 2:30 in the morning, it ends at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

In response to a suggestion that long meetings be split up into parts so that the discussion could take place on consecutive days, City Attorney Alisha Patterson said it’s not an option to simply continue an item to the next day. A special meeting would have to be scheduled and receive mandated 24-hour public notice, pushing it out at least a couple of days. Additionally, the council chamber is in use most nights, according to Pirrie, so it may not even be possible if another panel was using the room.

“I want to ask that the community think of this from a different lens,” Reece said. “And less about ourselves and what we lose, and more about what others gain,” referring to the idea that three-minute limit allows more people to speak.

As an example, he referenced Lyon, who earlier in the evening wished to address the council but approached the microphone after the 30-minute limit had been reached. Reece allowed Lyon to speak, effectively extending the general comment period by several minutes.

“If it was reduced to three minutes, you would have been able to speak in the 30-minute time limit,” Reece said. “I gave you that courtesy tonight, however, maybe future mayors won’t do that. They will adhere to the 30-minute time limit and have you speak at the end of the council meeting.”

“I do not have a problem with shortening the time limit from four to three,” Stark said. “I think there is real merit in creating more space for more people to give comment within the beginning of the meeting especially when it’s public comment.

“However, to the point that some of our commenters made, I do not think that it is public comment alone that makes the meetings go long. I think that part of what the public should expect of us is that we be impeccable with the public’s time. So I think it’s really important that we up here use economy of words, that we are careful to make sure that we don’t ask the same question that was already asked.”

She pointed to the July 11 meeting referenced in Pirrie s presentation and noted that public comment took an hour and 20 minutes, but the council’s deliberations went much longer, and one council member asked questions for 45 minutes.

“I am not saying that it’s not imperative that we ensure that all of our questions are answered for the public good, but to use the public’s time to re-ask questions that have already been addressed either in the staff report or in the materials we have gotten, I think if the intent is to educate the public, there is a much better way to do that rather than asking question upon question,” Stark said. “It’s really important that the public has objective standards to judge the way we are serving them, and I think our use of time on the dais should be one of them. We need to be more impeccable with the use of time. If every minute counts, then every minute counts for us as well.”


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