Efficiency is a buzzword. It gets bandied about in all walks of life. Whether it is road construction or public outreach for a housing development, everybody wants it. Efficiency is paramount. It is essential.
But, like many things, there is a divide between stated preference and revealed preference. Simply stating efficiency is needed does not make it happen. That requires change. The Santa Clara City Council understands this, which is why, a few months back, it put a policy in place aimed at increasing the efficiency of its meetings.
It didn’t work.
With the election of council members Karen Hardy, Anthony Becker, Kevin Park and Vice Mayor Suds Jain, the Council’s dynamic shifted. Mayor Lisa Gillmor once enjoyed a majority opinion thanks to political allies Debi Davis, Kathy Watanabe and Teresa O’Neill. The ousting of Davis and O’Neill in the last election turned the political tide.
Since then, seemingly routine topics have become contentious, devolving into hours-long debate where ad hominem attacks are not uncommon.
This phenomena has caused meeting lengths to soar, with the average run time ballooning to roughly seven hours. Because of the Council’s inability to agree, items regularly get pushed to subsequent agendas, creating a backlog that the Council has been unable to keep up with.
Recognizing a problem, the Council hired communication consultant Shawn Spano and held a study session in August covering how to get through meetings in a timely manner. After that discussion, the Council walked away with new rules on how best to run meetings to ensure they don’t drag on for hours.
Those rules limit how many times a council member can comment on an item and have them asking questions of City employees in bulk before hearing the answers. The Council unanimously approved the new procedure.
Despite the policy’s intent, an examination of an equal number of Santa Clara City Council meetings prior to and since its enaction show that the average meeting length is less than two minutes shorter since the policy was put in place.
An Agenda With An Agenda
Council Member Park was the only council member absent during the discussion with Spano. Since the new policy has been in place, Park has been critical not only of its intent but also of how it has been enacted, saying its intent is antithetical to spirited debate and that Gillmor is weaponizing it to shut down discussion.
He pointed to the Council’s stated values, which draw attention to robust discussion. Robust discussion, he said, is not attacking each other but coming to an understanding. The new policy sacrifices spirited debate at the altar of efficiency, he said. Instead of the current policy, Park said the Council would do well to examine each agenda and be realistic about how long each item will take.
“If we want to keep meetings short, we need to do meeting management, not get rid of robust discussion,” said Park. “[The mayor and the City Manager’s Office] want to get rid of robust discussion…Council meetings are for discussion. They are not just questions and answers. Discussion is dialogue. Questions and answers are not dialogue.”
As the person who runs the meeting, it is Gillmor’s prerogative to speak last. She frequently uses this, Park said, to “lob a grenade,” saying something inflammatory, accusatory or personal as the last word, denying the object of the attack an opportunity to respond in the name of the policy. Park said the Council — himself included — needs to be better about “not taking the bait.”
One suggestion Spano had was to have the Council submit their questions ahead of time so as not to bog down the meeting by getting details already available to them. However, Park said, City Manager Deanna Santana essentially put a stop to this practice, claiming it was a time suck on already strained City resources.
A Different Type Of Governance
Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein said his city also has policies in place to keep meetings succinct. Unlike Santa Clara, Sunnyvale requires a majority vote to continue the meeting past 11:30 p.m. and a five-vote supermajority to continue past 12:30 a.m. Although the policy is in place, Klein said the Sunnyvale City Council rarely makes use of it.
But that starts, he said, with doing exactly what Park said Santa Clara should be doing: managing the agenda. When organizing the agenda, Klein said city employees make sure to structure it with the items most likely to spark lengthy debate or garner much public comment toward the start of the meeting.
Beyond that, he added, he strives to keep the council on topic and prevent the meeting from devolving into mean-spirited exchanges. Such discourse is infectious and fans negative public comments. If the public see their city council behaving in such a way, they will follow suit, he said.
“It is a mayor’s responsibility to conduct a well-run meeting and have civil discourse,” Klein said. “It is critical that we treat each other with respect. It goes to the mayor to set the tone…If you have the circus, people are there to watch it as well as contribute to it.”
Such a dynamic, Klein said, deters involvement in governance, creating a chilling effect that filters into the public consciousness. Further, once a topic is settled, he said, he tries to accept it and move on, even if he opposed it. Living and dying with a policy decision — refusing to let it go — is not good leadership, he added.
A Tug Of War
Beyond meeting management, Park offered solutions he said would be better, such as holding closed sessions on different days than open sessions. But he doesn’t see that happening since he suspects having lengthy meetings is deliberate.
“In a way, I believe the City Council is engineered to take a lot of time because of a narrative…that the new City Council members don’t know what they are doing,” he said. “[The mayor and City Manager] will do whatever they can to make it harder for newer council members or anybody that is not on their side.”
While knowing the reason behind why Santa Clara City Council meetings take so long—and whether Park’s suspicion that it is conspiratorial—is difficult, there is merit to the notion that Gillmor uses it to control the content of the meeting.
For instance, at last week’s meeting, Gillmor denied a speaker a chance to comment on an agenda item, saying she “already went to the public.” Gillmor regularly makes accommodations to allow members of the public to speak, even if they have exceeded their allotted time or wish to speak multiple times.
As it turned out, the speaker who commented on a later item and noted that it was “unfair” she was disallowed from commenting on a previous item was Harbir Bhatia, Council Member Watanabe’s political opponent in the last election.
The losers in the scenario are members of the public who give up their time to be heard by the Council, Park said. With all the divisiveness, and meetings dragging on, it deters people from making their voice heard.
Park said he believes the controversy over meeting length is simply an extension of the vitriolic rhetoric aimed at the new council members, usually painting them as “49ers candidates” because the political action committee funded by team CEO Jed York supported them during the election, something over which the candidates have no control.
“It is not a war. It is not a battle. I’ll tell you why. Because you only have one side throwing rocks,” Park said. “It is an age-old propaganda technique.”