Palo Alto weighs ideas to speed up council meetings

Clear time limits, digital clocks among ideas on the table

Palo Alto's elected officials disagree on many issues, but they are united in their belief that they need to talk less and make City Council meetings more efficient.

After two lengthy discussions about this topic, a City Council committee will consider specific proposals to further that end at a meeting tonight.

The list of ideas to promote efficiency is long and varied, having been the subject of two discussions during the council's annual retreat on Jan. 31 and a special meeting several weeks after that.

Proposals include setting a hard-stop time of 11 p.m. for council meetings, limiting the amount of time council members get to ask questions during the meeting, and giving the mayor of committee chair more discretion to limit the time of council comments. All of these ideas came from Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and will be discussed by the Policy and Services Committee tonight.

Councilman Cory Wolbach proposed a few other ideas. One would equip the Council Chambers with two digital timers, with the first timer starting when an agenda item begins and the second starting when a particular council member begins to speak.

According to a report from the office of City Manager James Keene, the timers would be applied to council members, staff and the public "whether or not there is a time limit to their comments."

"This would serve as a subtle, constant and public reminder to be concise," the report states.

Wolbach also proposed a more dramatic and controversial idea: Scheduling council meetings on the first and third Mondays of each month, and saving the second and fourth Mondays for the "overflow" of unfinished business.

Currently, the council holds regular meetings on the first three Mondays of the month. It also frequently schedules a "special meeting" on the fourth Monday if needed.

The proposal met some resistance at the January retreat, with Councilman Pat Burt suggesting that the council is unlikely to get through its workload with only two regular meetings each month.

"This notion that somehow by only scheduling two regular council meetings a month, suddenly our workload will be cut in half, is at best very wishful thinking," Burt said.

Wolbach said he doesn't believe the change would necessarily create fewer meetings, but it would make time management easier.

"There would be more clarity about what would be on (the agenda) in the second and fourth weeks," Wolbach said at the retreat.

The new staff report also notes that designating two Mondays for "overflow" items will create an incentive for council members to be efficient "to avoid extra meetings."

Some ideas are fairly mundane and specific: making it clear to the public early in the meeting if the item they came for is unlikely to be heard that night; delivering council motions to the City Clerk through digital means (rather than reciting them orally and editing them in real time); and committing to hearing the public comments within the time frame listed on the agenda for their item.

Others are squishier and more ambitious. Councilman Tom DuBois said the council should challenge itself to keeping meetings to three hours (they currently stretch to five or six hours). He proposed designating 15 percent of the allocated time to staff reports, encouraging the public to make only "new points" (and poll the audience on points that have already been made); and creating a "chess clock" style of managing the council.

His proposal also includes trying to change the culture "so that everyone doesn't feel the need to speak on every item."

The Policy and Service Committee will discuss the various suggestions at 7 p.m. in the Community Meeting Room at City Hall, at 250 Hamilton Ave.

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5 people like this
Posted by roger smith
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 8, 2015 at 11:06 am

great news---make it happen

10 people like this
Posted by Democracy please
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 8, 2015 at 11:33 am

Why are long meetings bad? I'm more interested in good decisions than fast ones.

12 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 8, 2015 at 11:41 am

Diminishing returns when you go so late. Either meet more often, start earlier or find a way to clamp down on every CC member droaning on and on.

9 people like this
Posted by Robert Smith
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 8, 2015 at 12:15 pm

The City Council has many problems but the least of them is the long meetings.

My biggest frustration is the time I am sitting waiting for the item that I am interested in comes up. Perhaps breaking meetings apart would be a good idea. An example: next week's meeting about Buena Vista is likely to be well attended, but there are preliminaries. A lot of people will sit there waiting.

Overall, however, I have often felt that major decisions are made without sufficient public input and council questions and deliberations. More time is cheaper than making a mistake.

Example: the $4M expense for remodelling city hall was hardly discussed!

2 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 8, 2015 at 12:29 pm

Thank you committee members for meeting and tackling this issue separately and beyond your regular times spent at CC meetings, sometimes loooong those meetings. Some good ideas mentioned. Probably not all of them will work. Obviously this will go thru an experimental phase. That's what testing new ideas is all about. Test, evaluate results, and adjust if need be and go back and test again.

I might disagree with the author's first paragraph statement, however. Yes, CC members might sound united on this but as most of us know, when many of them get the mike they like to keep it and use it to show their constituency back home that they're really doing something. And then there are the regular public speakers that have opinions and advice on almost every issue.

I try to watch the CC meetings on TV but I doze off often and those late meetings go way beyond my bedtime.

I've thought about attending meetings and having my 3 minutes 'of say', to speak on an issue, but it's always been so unpredictable when that might happen so I just haven't done it.

Good luck all you hard working Council members.

6 people like this
Posted by AnotherView
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 8, 2015 at 12:53 pm

I think that part of the problem is that the Council members cannot have a "discussion" about a topic. Each has to be 'called upon' and then they take the opportunity to 'expound' or pontificate. I'd prefer to see a round-table discussion - as if they were sitting around my dining room table - talking about a topic, even interrupting one another occasionally with a comment or question. I find the current SOP extremely wasteful and less productive than it might otherwise be towards getting to a solution, or to a quicker vote.

12 people like this
Posted by Onlne Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 8, 2015 at 1:15 pm

I urge everyone to watch the latest 4.5 hour City Council meeting on the future of retail. The pressure to write regulations on the spot is very very sad, especially when a good part of the meeting was spent trying to define "retail" with no one mentioning the word "services."

There was no discussion of the points raised. Several people talked about the importance of limiting retail to a small concentrated area (Judy Kleinberg/Chamber of Commerce) but no one had a chance to debate that comment by pointing out, for example, that Nordstrom's in SF purposely located its new store several blocks down Market Street and revitalized the whole area.

13 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 8, 2015 at 1:21 pm

Please put the "Public Comment " items first in the agenda instead of last.

11 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 8, 2015 at 1:44 pm

I do not support Mr. DuBois' suggestion to discourage citizens from speaking unless they are making "new" points.

The raising of hands to "agree" would exclude potentially critical nuances and would certainly not have the same impact as the spoken word.

Ultimately, I feel the citizens have a right to speak and the Council has a responsibility to listen.

If this restriction is imposed on citizens, it should be imposed on Council, too.

Councilors -- who are not limited to three minutes -- certainly waste time by endlessly agreeing with one another.

10 people like this
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 8, 2015 at 4:51 pm

Historically, the council members speechify at length on how they've already and irrevocably made up their minds. That is totally non-productive and should be strictly limited to 2 minutes each. Cut the mike.

If, however, the council members are actually debating an issue and are open to persuasion, or are constructing an ordinance, then whatever time that takes is well spent. I notice our new mayor seems to favor this model.

9 people like this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Apr 8, 2015 at 10:43 pm

Most of the supporters of retail in Palo Alto are arguing for small retail spaces, not large department stores or big box stores of Nordstrom proportions.

5 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 8, 2015 at 11:21 pm

I would rather see us develop an online community space for which all Palo Altans can register -- maybe only in person downtown initially -- where information about upcoming business is provided and there are places to leave public comment and have public discussion, as well as ways for City Council to comment and discuss. This way when they get to the public meeting, the business can be dealt with in a more expedient way. It would also make public participation more democratic, it can be really difficult to attend meetings, especially from across town. It drives me nuts to be told I should have attended a meeting about some issue I take the time to write about (as if I had nothing else going on in life).

A tool like this should be made very clearly available at the library, maybe even dedicate one of the library computers to the interactive space. It would definitely be a way to increase community engagement.

8 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 9, 2015 at 12:31 am

@Citizen -- such on-line spaces have been attempted.
Open City Hall - Web Link# - "online forum for civic engagement"
Our Palo Alto - Web Link - "community conversation about the future of our City"
Registration/identity/anonymity have always been problematic on any forum.
I don't know whether either of these spaces is broadly followed. Open City Hall has a few current comments on minimum wage. Our Palo Alto has current updates on things like the California Ave construction.

Someone once said 80 percent of life is showing up. Sure it can be a pain, but if there's an issue important enough, people will make the effort. One percent of the city would fill the council chambers three times over. There's nothing like a physical crowd.

7 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 9, 2015 at 4:53 pm

How about giving some consideration to having the City Manager provide a written report and then have a limited time for oral presentation of the highlights? I have been at meetings where his report is very, very long. Have also noticed that when wordsmithing starts, those meetings lengthen considerably, especially if this starts after 10/10:30. I'm not sure how to remedy that phenomena but imagine someone on this forum will have a suggestion.

12 people like this
Posted by Limit staff time too
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 9, 2015 at 6:10 pm

I agree with Annette. Staff takes up more time than anyone. They never -never answer a question with a yes, or no, or I don't know, I'll look into it. They always respond with a paragraph.
The paragraph often confuses matters and often you can't tell exactly what was said. Very skillful, it must be something they are taught to do because they almost all do it. Except the City Attorney is able to speak clearly.
The most expert verbal snow job expert was the traffic guy. Never could figure out what he was saying.

9 people like this
Posted by jane
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 9, 2015 at 6:45 pm

@ Anette and @ Limited staff time too

Agree with your comments. I called the traffic guy the "smoke and mirrors" man.

2 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 9, 2015 at 11:12 pm

"There's nothing like a physical crowd."

You still get the physical crowd for the meetings. But what you wouldn't get is the skewing by astroturf because people would have to be transparent in registration. And you wouldn't get the long meetings because you could get more business out of the way up front.

The spaces you mentioned do not accomplish what I am suggesting. It would take planning and work to get that rolling, too. But well worth it.

2 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 10, 2015 at 10:17 am

I attended a number of PACC meetings in which the topic I was concerned with came up last because it was politically problematical. There were important out-of-city guests for these meetings which had to listen to every other topic then participate at 11:30 at night.

I see a tactical error in the previous PACC group that if a person was not technically capable of leading the discussion then they pushed it to the end hoping that no one would be there to listen.

Problem eliminated - do not vote for people who cannot understand the topics that come up.

I think they put some easy issues in the front of the agenda which are time consuming so they do not have to deal with harder issues.

Suggest that the easy topics - awards for dogs, etc all be put in an "easy" week so that the hard issues can be segregated into specific weeks that provide enough time to deal with the issue at the beginning of the agenda.

Everyone knows what you are doing when you put hard issues at the end - less exposure to the public.

2 people like this
Posted by spike
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Apr 10, 2015 at 11:42 am

Crescent Park Dad, Gale Johnson, Curmudgeon, Arbitarian, and AnotherView are right. The root cause of long meetings is too many council members, each feeling the need to blather on every subject. Nine members seems the right number for the supreme court, but too many for our city council.

I know this subject has come up before. This time let's make it happen. "Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come." Victor Hugo.

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 10, 2015 at 11:55 am

Citizen has a good point - "I would rather see us develop an online community space for which all Palo Altans can register -- maybe only in person downtown initially"

I continually find it amazing that in the epicenter of Silicon Valley how backward and non-innovative we are in using online extensions of alternatives to what is already in place. There are those who are trying, and they need a little encouragement perhaps or maybe some monetary investment to see what can be done.

If there could be an orderly way to enter ideas, and arguments and responses in one place, at any time, and be able to read them that could certainly foster public interest and involvement.

2 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 10, 2015 at 1:18 pm

The number of council members is good. There is always a PACC member who wants to go to a vote when there has been no discussion. Like the steam roller trying to muscle something through with no discussion. Also a number of people are always on travel - or sick so there does not seem to be a full house all of the time.

The problem I see is that the staff is not prepared. On the discussion of how many projects are in the pipeline and where in the pipeline the individual talking did not know and would have to follow-up. And this is the person who approved the 429 University project.

The Planning Department should have a web page that has the status of all projects identified by street number and where they are in the cycle. Any one in a PACC meeting should be able to bring up that information. Also any variations on code implementation - this should be on the table before the meeting.

Same for Parks and Rec - any thing going on that needs a status - like the golf course. How about the Foothill property? Any other projects that are receiving funding should be identified by category.

If a political problem is going to come up then the PACC should provide before hand what questions they will have so this is researched in preparation for the meeting.

We know the staff is busy but if they are working on a project that will come up for discussion then they should have that information published on the city web page before the meeting.

How tiring is it when the staff does not know the answer to a basic question on a city process.

Like this comment
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 10, 2015 at 2:22 pm

spike --

Actually, I don't think reducing the number of Council members from nine to seven will necessarily result in a significant reduction in meeting duration.

Of course, it might, but with less competition for the mic, it's quite possible that the seven members will just take the opportunity to speechify at even greater length than they do at present.

(Obviously, there are topics which merit intensive discussion and some Council members and staff consistently provide valuable ideas. But too often, in my opinion, the talking seems primarily directed at scoring political points.)

That said, I do think there are ways to make the sessions both more productive and shorter.

As others have suggested, better preparation by Council and staff, technology for accessing information, and professional meeting management would be a good start.

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 10, 2015 at 2:47 pm

" But too often, in my opinion, the talking seems primarily directed at scoring political points."

Or pouring out a torrent of verbiage hoping a pony will happen somewhere in it.

Like this comment
Posted by sea reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 11, 2015 at 1:44 am

Good idea.


1 person likes this
Posted by sea reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 11, 2015 at 1:48 am


Like this comment
Posted by spike
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Apr 11, 2015 at 1:47 pm

"...the seven members will just take the opportunity to speechify at even greater length than they do at present."

Not if we remind them why they are short two members. Lots of city councils have only five members: Menlo Park and Los Altos for example. AND, it was the Menlo Park council that made it attractive for Facebook to abandon Palo Alto for Menlo Park.

Just saying...

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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