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Council Ponders How to Make a Shorter Meeting  

By Jonathan Friedman
Lookout Staff

June 24, 2010 -- Mayor Bobby Shriver’s ideas for how to shorten the length of City Council meetings were not well-received by most of his colleagues on the dais and members of the public in attendance at Tuesday’s council meeting. But a majority of the council supported holding a hearing on the topic at a future meeting and for a pilot program at which it would be noted on one meeting agenda estimated times for when discussions on major items would begin.

One idea Shriver had was to eliminate the oral presentation of staff reports during the meeting. As an alternative, he proposed staff members would do the presentations several days before the meeting in front of a camera. The videos would be placed online and elsewhere for view by council members and the public.

Nobody supported this concept, although Mayor Pro Tem Pam O’Connor said it could be done in addition to the presentations during meetings. Council member Gleam Davis said for those who had not read the staff report or seen the prerecorded presentation, hearing only the council discussion during the meeting would be like “hearing one half of a conversation.”

Pico Neighborhood activist Catherine Eldridge said not having staff report presentations during the meeting would be unfair to those with “economic and technological limited access to computers and cable TV.”

Another concept proposed by Shriver was to limit the amount of time council members had to discuss an item.

“Many other legislatures work on a budgeted time and it reflects, I think, the fact that the amount of time you have on things is finite,” Shriver said. He continued, “I think it’s easier to be effective and sharp when you have a shorter meeting.”

But this concept also was met mostly with dissatisfaction.

“I want to have a robust discussion,” Davis said. “When I was a member of the public, I appreciated hearing the robust discussion. It gave me insight into what the council members were thinking; why they voted the way they did.”

O’Connor said this also could create an issue if the council quickly gets through an item.

“Do we then just keep jabbering on something because we have 15 minutes (remaining) because if we move (the next item) up, we’ll have a lot of people angry because they won’t have a chance to talk on their items?” she asked.

Council member Robert Holbrook proposed “time stamping” major agenda items. They would begin at a certain time within a 15- or 30-minute window. He got the idea from Board of Education meetings, which often have time stamps on items expected to generate significant public interest. If a discussion is taking place on another item when the hour arrives for the time-stamped item, discussion turns to that item. The board members return to the interrupted item at a later time.

Regular government meeting attendee Jerry Rubin suggested changing the day of the council meeting’s closed session, a period when council members and necessary staff meet outside the public view on legal and personnel matters. Currently, closed sessions happen near the beginning of the meeting. Theses sessions can often be lengthy and delay the public portion of the meeting.

Davis said “if our agendas are too dense to get through them at a reasonable hour, we should have more meetings.”

“We all voluntarily took this position,” she said. “This was not thrust on any of us. We ought to make ourselves available for extra meetings to do the public’s business in a reasonable amount of time.”

Council member Richard Bloom cautioned his colleagues on developing ways to make meetings shorter if it gives the appearance of trying to rush City business.

“We need to move forward efficiently,” he said. “It is not great when we’re meeting at 1 o’clock in the morning. But if we rush things through in order to try to avoid that outcome, there’s another consequence.”

When Shriver placed this discussion item on the agenda, he wrote that it was based on “Mayor Ken Genser’s proposal.” Shriver, who said he was privately criticized by several people for using the recently deceased mayor’s name, said he had not intended to suggest Genser would have supported his concepts. Shriver said he used Genser’s name because he was told by staff that Genser had requested staff look into shortening meetings.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said Genser had wanted to address the issue of people who get to make comments on council items at the beginning of meetings even if the discussion on the items will not take place until a later time. This benefit is given to those with disabilities as well as the elderly and children. City staff will present ideas on Genser’s request during the hearing on the other meeting- shortening concepts.

This discussion had several humorous moments. Shriver’s colleagues noted he had a lengthy report of his own to present the item. It was also noted that this was the longest discussion of the night at what was an otherwise short council meeting by Santa Monica standards.


“I want to have a robust discussion, When I was a member of the public, I appreciated hearing the robust discussion. It gave me insight into what the council members were thinking; why they voted the way they did.”
      Gleam Davis





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