San Jose’s elected officials last week passed new rules meant to stem the notoriously long City Council meetings that often stretch deep into the night.
The decision, passed in an 8-2 vote, lets council members talk for 10 minutes before being sent to the end of the line of councilors waiting to speak and starting the process again. Though that can theoretically go on indefinitely, elected officials say they hope it will encourage some brevity while giving every council member a chance to talk.
The idea comes from a February 11 memo from council members David Cohen and Dev Davis and was later supported by Mayor Sam Liccardo, with a few changes that would have put more limits on how long councilors can speak on a single issue, though those ultimately weren’t adopted in full.
Even so, the proposal drew criticism from some councilors who say the new rules will restrain elected representative voices at a critical moment.
“Limiting the voices of those who represent marginalized communities is not what we need right now,” Councilwoman Maya Esparza told San Jose Inside. “Whether it’s Covid, the digital divide, language needs, childcare or working multiple jobs, the reality is that many residents cannot speak during a council meeting and rely on their elected representatives to speak about the issues that are important to them and their neighborhoods.”
That’s why Esparza, along with Councilwoman Sylvia Arenas, voted against the guidelines. Liccardo was absent for the vote after leaving half-way through the discussion.
Cohen did not offer up support to Liccardo’s memo calling for hard time limits, nor was he in favor of a limit on overall speaking time.
“My intention in doing this was never about limiting the total time,” Cohen said. “But about creating more orderly round-robin speaking.”
Esparza called for the guidelines to end once the pandemic subsided and for the council to revisit the guidelines once they met in person again. Though not officially adopted as an amendment, the suggestion drew echoes of support from other council members.
Davis, typically one of the quietest councilors, said she supports the proposal because the lack of structure has cut into her speaking time in the past year. “There have been many items where I had notes and I had questions that I just end up texting staff my questions even if I think they might be something that would add to the discussion, because frankly, I don’t want to stay here until midnight every day and I don’t think that’s doing the public a service,” Davis said.
Esparza, however, says staying up until midnight to hash out public policy is a small price for the ripple effects those decisions create—especially during a pandemic.
“Democracy is worth spending time on,” Esparza said. “These are life or death decisions and if they take time, so be it.”
Councilors spent an hour airing grievances about the measure, from limiting women's voices to stifling advocacy.
“As a woman I really don’t want to be encouraged to keep my voice at a limit,” Arenas said. “For me this also has a different flair to it other than just taking turns.”
But in the end, frustrations over what are commonly 12-hour City Council meetings gobbling up city staffers' and residents' time carried the debate.
“We’re not the only voices of the public,” Liccardo said. “My concern has been all along that our voices, rather than mirroring the voices of the public, in many ways are drowning out the voices of the public.”
And while Councilman Sergio Jimenez supported the new time limits, he says there is a bigger issue around the divisiveness that has crept into San Jose’s City Council meetings causing the conversations to drag into the morning hours. Monologues that go on for 20 or more minutes often end in personal comments or jabs, he added.
“Hopefully…one of the outcomes of this is that we’ll be more cognizant and maybe listen a little bit more to some of the folks and not necessarily take a combative stance to people’s commentary,” he said.
And then there is the issue of dwindling attention spans in the fast-paced, technology-driven, information-bite world, says Vice Mayor Chappie Jones.
“There’s been studies that have shown that the average adult has an attention span of about two minutes,” he said. “After two minutes we lose them. So it’s incumbent upon all of us to try to get whatever points or questions or information we want to get out and to do it as efficiently as possible.”