When members of the public have the floor at Berkeley City Council meetings, their comments can range from moving to meandering. Some drive home their points by delivering comments in song, lacing them with humor or wielding props like picket signs or, in one viral moment, a zucchini.
While it might seem like a classic example of democracy in action, some critics say the City Council’s current system for hearing from the public — which often requires people to sit through hours of other business before getting to speak their minds for a minute or two — is in fact undemocratic.
The council will consider proposals next week that would move the public’s time to speak earlier in the meeting and consolidate many of the different commenting opportunities, which supporters say would create a more predictable and accessible process.
“By making it so difficult for members of the public to plan around giving comment, we’re suppressing the public’s ability to participate in the democratic process,” said Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who supports changing the rules. “Right now, the meetings are designed in a way that advantages the few who want and are able to engage in the meeting into the night — at the expense of virtually everyone else.”
But others, including several local advocacy groups and Councilmember Kate Harrison, worry those changes could minimize the public’s voice at meetings.
“People have a direct interest in what we do, and I think it’s important that we hear them,” Harrison said.
City Council meetings currently let members of the public give comments at several points.
Near the start of the meeting, there’s an opportunity to speak about any topic that isn’t on that night’s agenda. Soon afterward, there’s another comment period where people can talk about topics on the “consent calendar,” a batch of lower-profile matters the council approves with a single vote.
Then the council moves into the meat of the meeting: the action calendar, which comprises several items that involve more extensive discussions and are more likely to draw interest and lobbying from the public. Each item on the action calendar has a public comment period.
City Council meetings are being held in a hybrid format, meaning members of the public can speak in person or deliver their comments via Zoom.
The problem, advocates for changing the system say, is that people can’t be sure of when they’ll have the opportunity to speak about the action calendar item they care about, which might not be taken up until long after a meeting’s 6 p.m. start time. While plenty of people can and do wait to give their comments, others may give up and leave the meeting — or never bother attending in the first place — because they can’t spend all night following it.
Former Councilmember Lori Droste, who launched the effort to change how public comment works while she was in office, said the current structure means the council is less likely to hear from parents who have to care for children in the evening, or anyone who works at night or early in the morning; Robinson said the same is true for students.
There are now two proposals in front of the City Council for a new public commenting system. Members will discuss the ideas at a meeting Tuesday.
Droste proposed the council consolidate most public comment opportunities — on the action calendar, consent calendar and non-agenda matters — into a single period near the start of the meeting.
Her proposal also limits the number of public commenters to 50, though the council could raise the cap to 100 speakers with a two-thirds majority vote and go beyond that with a unanimous vote.
Droste said the proposal is modeled on how the Berkeley Unified School District hears from the public at its board meetings, which similarly have catch-all public comment periods at the start and end of the meeting.
“It’s predictable,” she said, “and I think much fairer, more equitable and more democratic.”
Robinson joined with Councilmember Susan Wengraf to put forward a set of amendments to Droste’s proposal: they want to keep separate comment periods for non-agenda topics and items on the consent calendar, but consolidate comment on most action items into a single opportunity early in the meeting. Certain action items, such as designated public hearings, would continue to have separate commenting sessions.
The amendments from Robinson and Wengraf would also remove the proposed cap on the number of public speakers.
Harrison and activist Kelly Hammargren, a loyal viewer and frequent commenter at City Council meetings, have raised the concern that holding a single comment period on most action calendar items will limit input from people who want to speak about multiple topics.
The student advocacy group Cal Berkeley Democrats wrote in a statement that it believes the current system needs changing, but argued the council should instead hold separate commenting opportunities for each action calendar item at the start of its meetings, so people can deliver their full comments on each item. Robinson said he is open to that change and plans to present it as an option.
“We can restructure our meetings to empower the public and make public comment more accessible for all,” Robinson said. “It’s not about reducing public comment, [and] it’s not about shortening the meeting.”
Harrison also contends moving all public comments to the start of meetings would mean those sentiments would be less fresh in councilmembers’ minds when they take up controversial items later in the night. She suggested holding one catch-all comment period at the start of the meeting, then giving the public more opportunities to speak during deliberations over each action item.
Hammargren said councilmembers who worry about long meetings driving the public away could take other steps to make commenting more accessible, like getting rid of the ceremonial events held at the start of many meetings or shortening their own comments. Harrison echoed that call, suggesting the council could hold more special meetings, or start meetings earlier in the afternoon, which could allow them to get to high-profile topics at a more reasonable hour.
“We should be reforming ourselves,” Harrison said.