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Criticism Follows Lengthy Meetings

POSTED June 14, 2011 3:37 p.m.

After a series marathon council meetings, some of which contained hot topic items lasting nearly until midnight, the common question heard within the audience before the start of many Oakdale council meetings nowadays is not about posted agenda items, but, “How long will this one last?”

The Brown Act, which governs public meetings, allows for members of the public to speak about items posted on the agenda and includes a reserved “general public comments” session to address the council with concerns.

Currently speakers are given many chances to comment during city meetings, leading to lengthy remarks, sometimes spurring impromptu debates that then conflict with the state’s open meetings law.

Past and current city officials, citizens, and even city employees have pointed the finger at Mayor Pat Paul, who chairs the council meetings, to be more assertive and control the meetings. They claim that some speakers are allowed to engage in senseless ramblings and a flurry of long public comments debating one another and siphoning attention away from the items that the panel places on its agendas as scheduled business.

Past Mayors, Councilman Agree

“I believe it’s a good idea to set some sort of time limit because people tend to drift off the issue,” said former mayor and regular meeting participant Farrell Jackson. “It’s the mayor’s job to pull people on track and I don’t see that happening right now.”

The Brown Act authorizes each city to adopt “reasonable regulations” to ensure that the intent of the statute’s public comment provisions is carried out. Such regulations can include limits on the amount of time for public testimony on issues and for each individual speaker.

Former Mayor Pat Kuhn has also noticed that meetings are “carrying on” longer than previous years.

“We have to hear from the people and their concerns,” said Kuhn, “but it’s the mayor’s job to set and enforce the ground rules, including speaking time limits and taking charge to those that want to argue or speak about a topic multiple times.”

The Oak Valley Hospital District, Oakdale Joint Unified School District, and Oakdale Irrigation District currently place three-minute limitations on their public speakers.

The city’s own publications state there is a five-minute limit on public statements during meetings. It also states that repetition of ideas already expressed should be avoided. Many want to see this enforced again.

“Our mayor is of the opinion that if someone wants to speak, they can go back and forth,” said multi-term councilman Michael Brennan, who reinforced that the five-minute time limit should be adhered to. “She (Paul) needs to take more control at the meetings.”

Citizens Want Efficiency

“All the ‘openness’ of the council can be a positive thing if you want, but it will turn people off by going late into the night,” said Burchell Hill resident Mike Hancock. “There needs to be time limits on the number of time a speaker can talk. It becomes frustrating when the same subjects get up and repeat themselves.”

Kathleen Westenberg regularly addresses the council on matters of concern and thinks the time limitations should be announced and honored. She said in past meetings she’s had to withhold comments because of the time given to other speaker’s concerns.

“Just last week I wanted to bring up a question about the taking of public documents that happened earlier in the year,” said Westenberg, “but because the meeting went so late, I held off.”

“The mayor can’t allow meetings or agenda items to go on for so long,” said Chamber of Commerce CEO Mary Guardiola, a regular attendee of the bi-monthly meetings. “Everyone’s time is valuable and everyone needs to be heard, but I’ve heard speakers from the audience talk about the same subject repeatedly.”

Guardiola also suggested starting meetings at 6 p.m. when items are anticipated to bring many speakers or there are more than normal items on the posted agenda.

Effect on Staff

Some also question the sharpness of city staff that has already put in a full workday or the efficiency of late-running meetings as later agenda items become hurried along.

“You can’t expect staff to work all day and go into the night,” said Kuhn. “Decisions can’t be crisp if you go past 9:30. If you can’t get public business conducted in a few hours, you need to continue the meeting.”

“Previous administrations operated much more efficiently,” said one city staff member who asked not to be identified. “Taking more control of these meetings and balancing speaker times would cut down on the time we’re there.”

“I’m going to start billing them for my time if this keeps up,” joked another high-ranking city employee.

“It’s not fair to make people, especially your staff who have to stay there, sit until midnight,” said Jackson. “As meetings go longer, tolerance for details gets overlooked.”

Jackson pointed out that when he was mayor very few, if any, of the meetings went past 10 p.m.

Mayor Responds

“I guess I can cut people off and say ‘stop’ when they go on,” said Paul when informed about the concerns. “I just hate having to ‘gavel’ people down or cut down the energy of the topic.”

Paul said she was aware of the posted five-minute time limit on speakers and also admitted that past 10 p.m. was too long for the meetings to run.

Paul said she’s noticed at the last council meeting that speakers used the time for personal attacks, identifying personal accusations to Sales Tax Committee Member Frank Clark and another to Acting City Manager Mike Botto by one speaker and toward one city resident by an airport presenter at the last council meeting.

“I definitely need to be more assertive when that happens,” Paul said. “The personal attacks have to stop.”

For efficiency, Paul said she plans on asking the council to look at the number of agenda items posted to keep the meetings from being long and reminding the audience at the start of the meeting of speaker time limitations.

The next Oakdale City Council Meeting is Monday, June 20 at 7 p.m. at the City Council Chambers.

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