Let’s Move Meetings Along and Pass the Consent Calendar

Public comments are the most impractical form of political communication ever devised by good government advocates. A minute or two for NIMBYs and tin hats to spout off for any reason whatsoever.

Normally, the public comment period is mercifully short. It is generally reserved for people who wish to quibble over the minutiae of government—the kind that read fine print of a parking stub and argue with the attendant. Meanwhile, others wait in line for what seems like an eternity. The public comment portion of local government meetings is a rare spotlight for those desperate to be heard, and it rarely adds to a constructive dialogue.

Once in a while an organized group shows up to talk about an issue that may come up on a future agenda, usually regarding a proposed development that has not reached the governing body yet. The emotions expressed in these “not ready for primetime” events usually take an apocalyptic tone—the world is coming to an end, children will perish and there are too many damn cars on the road.

A suggestion to would-be speakers at such times: Have a point if you’re going to take the microphone. If one attends a San Jose City Council meeting, there are 11 members of the governing body. They are paid to listen to everyone’s thoughts, but their time counts, as does that of municipal staff.

Which brings us to the real pet peeve: mayors and councils and boards, I ask you to please pass the consent calendar before public comment. Many people come to public meetings to make sure their items are heard and passed. Those with no objection go on the consent calendar. With one vote, all of these items are passed. The rub is that any council or board member can pull an item off of consent. As a result, diligent advocates must show up, just in case somebody has a question regarding their item. But more often than not these actions are routine and advocates leave once the calendar is passed.

If a council, board or agency moves public comments up before the consent calendar, as a way of appeasing people who showed up for an issue that can’t even be discussed, others in the audience must endure the ceaseless, repetitive and caustic statements of the masses. Sixty people times two minutes is two hours. People who do business in the real world are forced to wait too long before their item is heard, especially when it will be passed in less than a minute. It is a mind-numbing experience.

There is a reason many of us would never endure public office. Sitting through public meetings is one of them. It takes a special kind of person, and I admire those who are willing to do it. It is time they will never get back.

So, please—mayors, council members and board reps—respect the time of all audience members and first pass the consent calendar. A grateful group of people will thank you.

p.s. And while we're at it, let's get rid of the pledge, the prayer, flag raisings, plaques and photo ops.

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.

14 Comments

  1. And that’s why God created lobbyists, dictatorships are much easier to run!

  2. > There is a reason many of us would never endure public office. Sitting through public meetings is one of them.

    Well, this is what ended my political career . . . before it ever started.

    That, plus an irrepressible impulse to explain to jerks that they’re jerks.

  3. Rich complained that “others in the audience must endure the ceaseless, repetitive and caustic statements of the masses.” And all along I thought Uber Democrat Rich was a champion of the masses, like all good Democrats claim to be. Boy, did I get that one wrong. And Rich doesn’t even comment on the fact that public comment portion of every SJ City Council meeting is a cruel joke on “the masses”, since the decision has already been made days before the council meeting. It is very much like oral argument before an appellate court or a Supreme Court—the decision has been made after review and analysis of the papers filed with the court. Oral argument is a dry bone thrown to the lawyers. Rarely does oral argument change the outcome.

  4. I got a feeling Rich is referencing the MMJ folks lead by J L.

    For once we agree on something. I was there for a few of the pre-game meetings. “LETS ALL WEAR SHIRTS WITH POT LEAFS ON THEM!” Why guys? “TO SHOW SOLIDARITY!”

    They gave me a shirt but I never wore it. 2 reasons, you show respect towards council chambers by dressing the part. The other is, by wearing a shirt you’re basically telling council “Hey I’m with this group! I’m not a lone citizen!” Over 100 people involved with MMJ in one form or another gave public comment for 2 hours.. Council did not look pleased.

    And “Having a point” is dead on too. There was one guy in the group calling council racist.

  5. For reasons materially different than his, I support Mr. Robinson’s call to put an end to public comments at council meetings. In fact, I support any procedural change that goes toward helping the citizenry recognize the extent to which the representative form of government granted them by the Constitution has been sold to the highest bidder. Making a comment at a council meeting has as much impact on the political process as screaming in your living room has on a game at the Shark Tank.

    Let’s end the sham and make it real: no more propositions, opinion polls, or voting booths. Maybe once Americans are forced to see what they’ve lost they’ll take the steps necessary to get it back.

  6. San Jose has public comment at the end of the meeting, this is for items not on the Agenda. otherwise if you put it at the beginning before Consent Calendar you will get some wackos talking about Evrything under the sun. You are confusing public comment with comments on the Consent calendar.

  7. To Comrade Robinson: This isn’t the Soviet Union yet pal so don’t plan on getting rid of the pledge, the prayers, or the raising of the American Flag anytime soon, for if good little commie’s like yourself try it, you will have a lot of people showing up at those council meetings ready to put a boot up your rear-end.

    • You mean the people who don’t even bother to vote then complain the loudest about the policies enacted.

  8. Does the council still chew gum, look up at the ceiling and play on their phones when “citizens” are speaking? Ya I thought so. Even with Pete Constant gone its still the same tired game.

  9. Every now and then, the masses prevail at one of these public comment sessions. Look, democracy is slow and expensive. And, it’s being undermined. We were guaranteed jury trials by the founders but now 95% of cases are plea bargained. Justice be damned. There may be better ways to handle public comments, and many times it does seem like a waste of oxygen to hear NIMBYs drone on. But it’s their government, dammit. Not the developers and judges and lawyers.

  10. if you like inefficiency, leave it to any government and they will provide same. . Unless of course, they want a 200K bullet proof panic room, then no discussion is needed.