The problem is far from new. The combination of an engaged public, an ambitious workload, and council members for whom brevity isn't always the highest priority has routinely pushed meetings late into the night, exasperating staff and leading sleepy members of the public to prematurely slip out the exits as the bureaucratic background music of substitute motions and friendly amendments drones on.
Now, an effort is afoot to speed things up — and get more done. Newly elected Mayor Greg Scharff set the tone Jan. 14, during his first full meeting as mayor. Late meetings, he said, are tough on staff and stifle democracy in that they "effectively deprive the public of the practical ability to participate." He called on his colleagues to do their part to make meetings end at a reasonable time in 2013.
"This year, absent extraordinary circumstances, meetings are going to end before 11 p.m.," Scharff said. "This is going to take discipline and commitment for us to make this happen."
Some practical changes have already been made. This year, each item on the council's agenda has a time estimate next to it — a move geared toward preventing meandering and keeping things moving. Scharff and Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd now time each colleague when he or she speaks. Scharff said at the annual council retreat last Saturday, which was largely spent developing the council's top priorities for the year, that members should try to contain their comments to within five minutes. He added that the rule shouldn't be hard and fast and that some issues might require lengthier discussions.
"Almost anything a council member can say can be said in five minutes," Scharff said.
The new mayor isn't alone in lamenting the length of meetings. Councilman Larry Klein, long a critic of council inefficiency, co-signed a memo with Councilwoman Gail Price and Scharff last month sounding a similar alarm. The memo's problem statement was: "Our council meetings are taking too long."
Data from the City Clerk shows that the council met 52 times — or 260 hours — in 2012. That's 66 more hours than in 2008.
The average length of a meeting has grown, from 4 hours and 15 minutes in 2010 to 5 hours in 2012.
An average of just 10 meetings per year have ended before midnight.
Klein, Price and Scharff argued that these numbers show a "disturbing trend." Their memo encourages council members, in polite terms, to talk less.
"We acknowledge that there may be many reasons for longer meetings: more extensive reports and more discussions from the public, for example," the memo states. "But the one variable we have direct control over is the time we spend as council members asking questions and discussing issues. We risk undermining public confidence in our processes if we can't get this problem under control."
Klein offered a few ideas at the Saturday retreat. One idea was to be less hesitant in "moving the question," a procedure that, with the assent of a council majority, cuts off debate and leads to an immediate vote on the issue being discussed. He also beseeched them not to always feel like they have to talk on every major agenda item.
"We have gotten into the habit of everyone feeling the need to speak on virtually any issue that has concern for the community," Klein said Saturday. "I understand the psychology — once six or seven people said something, you feel stupid not saying something.
"The likelihood is that when six or seven people have spoken, there isn't much more to say," he added.
Scharff also asked for greater discretion in limiting how many "rounds" of questions and comments council members get, including eliminating an obscure rule that allows every council member to speak for an additional round if the mayor allows one member to comment or ask a question out of turn.
Councilman Marc Berman, meanwhile, said it might be time to discuss reducing the size of the nine-member council — a suggestion that has surfaced sporadically over the past few years but that has never gathered much traction in the community.
Since his Jan. 14 speech, Scharff has been practicing what he preaches. He has been vigilant about keeping discussions focused and brusque about cutting off colleagues whose comments he believes are straying beyond the scope of the agendized item.
The results have been promising so far. Discussions have followed time estimates on the agendas, and no meeting has stretched anywhere close to midnight. But the real test will come later in the year, when the council wrestles with controversial new developments, including proposals for 27 University Ave. and 395 Page Mill Road.
The council's newfound appetite for a little less conversation and a little more action is also reflected in the priorities members officially adopted for the year on Saturday. The council made a point of eschewing the vague and feel-good priorities of the past and emphasizing "actionable" ones. After a long discussion at the Palo Alto Art Center, it selected infrastructure, the future of downtown (and, to a lesser extent, California Avenue), and "technology and the connected city."
Old standbys such as city finances and environmental sustainability are now off the priority list, as are 2012 priorities "youth well-being" and "emergency preparedness." These subjects could soon be incorporated as part of the city's "core values," a subject that the council is scheduled to discuss, possibly at length, in the spring.