Op/Ed: The Long City Council Meetings Are Bad for Democracy, And All Solutions Should Be on the Table

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It seems that every meeting of the Santa Monica City Council there’s a debate or controversy caused by how darned long the meetings are. The seven person Council includes more than a handful of senior citizens, parents of school and pre-school age children, and several members that have to get up the next morning for work; and meetings that end after midnight don’t lead to the best decision making. But the problem is bigger than just the inconvenience it causes for members.

The last meeting was almost ten and a half hours long, and the Council didn’t get all the way through the agenda. The one two weeks earlier was almost nine hours. It seems the only time the meetings end close to eleven at night is when a majority of the Councilmembers just decide they’ve had enough for the night with important business still on the table, as they did three meetings ago.

These meetings are bad for Democracy.

For one thing, exhausted members may miss details, one even joked at the last meeting that maybe they were sleeping when they asked a question from staff that had already been answered. For another thing, by the time “public comment on agenda items” occurs, it is often after 9 p.m. at night. These late and erratic “start times” for actual agenda items and public comment are limiting people’s ability to participate in the City Council process.

Councilmember Caroline Torosis offered a discussion item for this week’s agenda that proposed some ways to shave time off the agendas that were pulled before the weekend. The bulk of the proposal was to limit the time Council members could ask questions, discuss new proposals and limit presentations by staff to fifteen minutes.

Personally, I don’t have an opinion on how the meetings could be shortened. I do have a personal favorite solution would be to split the closed session meetings to a completely different day or even week so all public comment could happen at once immediately before the Council begins debate and staff Q and A. 

Sometimes the Council doesn’t return from “closed session” for hours and the return time is inconsistent. At the last meeting, some members of the public were texting each other three hours after the meeting started to coordinate Starbucks orders so they could be alert when it was time to deliver their comments.

But I recognize that the City Council positions are part-time and adding mandatory meetings to their schedule may provide even greater inconvenience to them or even make it impossible for them to properly serve.

But something has to change. The current process makes it difficult or even impossible for normal people to give comments at meetings and the late hours are bad for the Councilmembers themselves. I’m not convinced that Torosis’ pulled proposal was the best one, but it is past for Council to start the discussion.

Damien Newton
Damien Newton
Damien is the executive director of the Southern California Streets Initiative which publishes Santa Monica Next, Streetsblog Los Angeles, Streetsblog San Francisco, Streetsblog California and Longbeachize.

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