It is almost that time of year when we hear the popular idiom, “It is better to give than to receive.” At last weekend’s City Council retreat, Santa Monica’s elected officials hoped speakers willing to give time to others would help improve the quality of public testimony at council meetings.
Indeed, council members approved a one-year pilot program to allow those who speak during the public testimony of respective agenda items at council meetings to donate time to each other. The result, a member of the public may speak up to four minutes.
Currently, someone who filled out a chit to speak on any given topic at a council meeting was given two minutes to address the council.
Under the pilot program, someone could relinquish his or her right to speak for two minutes and allocate that time to someone else, giving the recipient up to four minutes to address council members. The person who passes his or her time to someone else must willingly do so and be present at the meeting.
The pilot program was approved by a five-to-one vote at the council’s retreat held Oct. 28; Mayor Pro Tem Terry O’Day was the sole vote against.
City staff had originally proposed the council not permit public speakers donate time amongst each other and maintain the current practice of speaking on his or her behalf. However, Council member Kevin McKeown proposed a staff direction to allow for “voluntary consolidation of public testimony.”
After McKeown’s staff direction was technically defeated by a three-to-three vote, Council member Ted Winterer proposed the pilot program allowing one speaker to donate his or her time to another speaker, giving the recipient up to four minutes to address the council.
The issue of one speaker donating time to another surfaced after council members allowed members of the public in August to divvy up speaking time amongst each other during deliberations of the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP).
At the Aug. 13 meeting, City Clerk Sarah Gorman announced an estimated 75 people submitted chits to address the council on the DSP agenda item.
Moments later, Winterer suggested at the Aug. 13 meeting an exception be made to the two-minute time limit during public testimony and allow speakers the opportunity to group together. When he made the suggestion, Winterer hoped a more efficient and focused commentary would follow by allowing some speakers who wanted to speak longer than two minutes to borrow time from those who either had something similar to say or needed less than 120 seconds at the podium.
Accordingly, there were some speakers who addressed the council for as long as six minutes.
Though he voted in favor of the one-year pilot at the council retreat last weekend, Council member Tony Vazquez observed the attempt to allow speakers to donate time in August was not smoothly administered and might have actually been a hindrance to the public process.
“The one time we tried it I thought it was pretty chaotic. I don’t think it helped, I think it actually hurt,” Vazquez told his colleagues, referencing the Aug. 13 meeting.
Mayor Pam O’Connor was worried the pilot program could actually result in public testimony taking more time to complete. It could be possible every speaker addressed for four minutes, she noted.
A similar practice is currently in place with the Planning Commission, where speakers who address the dais can accept donated time from someone else who had planned to speak.
Council member Gleam Davis supported the pilot program but commented the Planning Commission’s practice of allowing speakers to donate time to others does not perfectly transition to council meetings. Davis, who served on the Planning Commission prior to joining the City Council, said the advisory board does not consistently attract the high number of speakers as the council would on a particular issue.
Also, speakers are given three minutes to address commissioners, compared to just two minutes at council meetings.
According to City staff, an estimated 15 to 25 speakers address the dais at Planning Commission meetings. However, City staff estimates 50 to 75 speakers take the podium at City Council meetings.
In its report to council members, City staff stated time donation is not a common practice among municipalities. Cities such as Beverly Hills, Pasadena, and West Hollywood – considered “benchmark” cities by City staff – “do not permit donation of time.”
However, Berkeley and Culver City do allow time donation.