Meaningful citizen input

So if you ever attend or watch Oakland City Council or Committee meetings, a complaint you’ll hear nearly every week is that the Council is disrespectful to Oakland’s citizenry because they don’t allow sufficient time for public comment at meetings. People get so angry about this! On their list of positions, Oakland’s League of Women Voters includes a section on ensuring “Meaningful Citizen Input.” The first bullet point of this section reads:

Adequate time for input at hearings (one – three minutes is often not enough)

Get real, people. (Also, realize that if you have a lot to say to the Council about a subject, there’s this thing called e-mail.) Look, I know that everyone naturally thinks that whatever they have to say is of course the most important thing in the world (hey, I speak at meetings, too. I feel you!), but these demands seem to me to reveal a complete failure to comprehend reality. You think what your speech is important? Newsflash: so does everyone else in that room. Meetings can only last so long.

At last night’s City Council meeting, 194 people signed up on a single item. Thankfully, not all of them elected to speak. But even at one minute apiece, that’s a potential three plus hours of public testimony on one item off a twenty page agenda. Could you imagine giving them five minutes, which is what people often suggest is a reasonable amount of time? For a controversial topic, this is not unusual. One year ago today, the City Council agenda included a recommendation on revision of the City’s condo conversion policy. 119 speakers signed up on that one item. At the same meeting, there were other items with 30 and 60 speakers.

I might be a little bit more sympathetic if half the speakers on these hot button issues didn’t tend to fritter away most of their allotted time complaining about how one minute is not enough. But only a little. I’ve found that when your remarks are thoughtful, focused, and well-prepared, one or two minutes is nearly always sufficient time to present an argument. And, honestly, if you really feel you need longer and can’t cajole, guilt-trip, or straight-up bribe at least one friend or acquaintance to come with you and cede you time, then that’s your problem. Try harder.

(And I’m sorry, but the O29 stuff is just going to have to wait until next week. These posts don’t write themselves, you know, and work that people actually pay me for needs to be my priority, and I’m up to my ears in it at the moment.)

2 thoughts on “Meaningful citizen input

  1. Becks

    As someone who’s spoken at several council meetings (and often waited until 11pm or midnight to do this), I strongly agree. I can’t imagine what these meetings would be like if every speaker had 5 minutes… maybe I’d then be waiting until 3am to speak.

  2. Jim Ratliff

    I agree: if you think and prepare, you can say a lot in one or two minutes. I’ve literally worked hours to refine my two-minute (for normal council committee meetings) or one-minute (for council meetings are really crowded committee meetings) remarks. Part of it is focusing what points you want to make, then making each point efficiently. Even in a short time, it’s better not to speak at 100 mph; I shoot for 125 words/minute. Even then I make sure I finish at least a second or two before my time expires. (Speakers who go over and get buzzed have their finale interrupted and seem disrespectful of the audience.)

    V is right, too, re: Time at a meeting is a scarce resource and meetings are way long enough already. This was probably exacerbated by the council’s move to meetings only every other week a few years ago.