How to speak at the City Council

I’ve gotten a number of inquiries from people who want to speak at tonight’s Council meeting, but aren’t quite sure what the process is. So here’s the rundown for the curious. Don’t be offended if I appear to be stating the obvious – I want this to be as clear as possible for everyone, so I’m assuming no prior knowledge of anything.

Okay, first – where is it? City Hall is the big white building at 14th and Broadway downtown that looks like a wedding cake. It’s impossible to miss. Walk in the front door and you will see a giant staircase. Walk up it. (There are elevators to the left in case you can’t use or are afraid of stairs.) Council Chambers is the big room with the big doors right at the top of the staircase that will have tons of people milling around outside. Again, impossible to miss.

If you wish to speak at a City Council meeting, you have to fill out a speaker card. You can either do that at City Hall before the meeting, or do it online beforehand. Click here to fill out a card online. You card will look like this:


If you want to speak on more than one item, you need to fill out a separate card for each item. Once you submit your online speaker card, you will get a confirmation number and receipt. Make sure you print out this page and bring it with you to City Hall.

If you choose to fill out a physical card at City Hall, you will find a table right outside the Council Chambers. There will be a staff person there, a stack of agendas, and a stack of cards. Pick up an agenda so you can follow along, fill out your card, hand it to the staff person at the table, and wait for them to give you your copy. Save this piece of paper! They will not accept any speaker cards after 8 PM (but I would advise people not to push that deadline, because I believe the City Hall clock is still 10 minutes fast).

The meeting starts at 6 PM. Everyone will say the Pledge of Allegiance, then the next thing that happens is Open Forum. Open Forum is where you go if you want to speak about something that is not on the agenda. You can talk about anything you want for one minute, but only the first fifteen people who fill out Open Forum cards get to talk. (I’m guessing that at this point, it’s probably already too late to get into Open Forum for tonight’s meeting.)

Next, there will be a long period of ceremonial matters, Councilmembers making announcements, and such. None of the issues people are concerned about will begin before 7 PM, and realistically, they will probably be much later than that. (I wrote a little overview of what’s on tonight’s agenda for the Oakbook yesterday, BTW.)

Anyway, the item numbers for the big issues people seem most interested in are:

Be patient. Meetings take a long time. They are often tedious. You will likely get annoyed at having to sit through a lengthy discussion of something that seems totally stupid to you and wonder why they can’t just hurry it up because your issue is much more important. Relax. Everyone feels this way about whatever item they showed up for.

When your item finally gets called, someone will give a short report explaining what the Council is being asked to do. Then they will call the names of all the people who filled out cards. Your speaker card will entitle you to one minute of time. If you think you need more than one minute to say what you want to say, you need to find someone who will cede time to you. So if you want, say, two minutes to speak, have a friend or your wife or somebody fill out their own card, give you their receipt, and when you get up to the podium, you say “Good evening Councilmembers, my name is V Smoothe. I have time ceded to me by Mr. V Smoothe” and wave your receipts to show you have both of them. The person ceding you time must be in attendance at the meeting. When you say their name, they should raise their hand to indicate they are present.

So now, some advice.

  • Relax. You may feel nervous once your turn comes. That’s okay, it’s normal. I’ve never been uncomfortable with public speaking, but the set-up at the Council feels very intimidating. Years after I first did it, I still shake uncontrollably the entire time I’m up there every single time I go speak. I’m constantly worried that my legs will give out from underneath me and I will collapse on the ground in front of everyone. If you feel this way, don’t worry. Nobody can tell. I promise.
  • Be polite. People are more willing to listen to you if you’re respectful. Berating the Council for something they did six years ago and telling them they’re corrupt will not accomplish anything except to waste everyone’s time and irritate people. And if you don’t care about wasting the Council’s time, remember that your rude and off-topic comments are also wasting the time of every concerned citizen watching the meeting.
  • Do not speak longer than your time. Do not whine about how late it is or how long you had to wait. Please, please, please, do not use your limited time to complain about how they don’t give you enough time. I know that a minute doesn’t seem like a lot, but you can actually say quite a bit in that window. When your minute is up and the clock buzzes, thank the Council for their time, then leave. It may seem unfair. You may feel like what you have to say is so important that it’s worth an extra 30 seconds or so. I promise you, every other person in that room feels the exact same way. Deal with it.
  • Prepare your remarks beforehand. Some people write out speeches and just read them. This is totally fine, and I recommend it if you think you’ll be nervous or are likely to get tongue tied. Other people bring up a bullet point list with them to help keep their comments on track. I strongly recommend doing this, especially if you are trying to cram a lot of points or information into your comment. It is a good way to ensure that you don’t forget anything important and that your points flow in a way that is easy for people to follow. Practice before you go, so you have a sense of what a minute feels like and how much you can expect to say. Practice making your statement to someone else, so they can tell you if you’re making no sense or your thoughts are hard to follow, then you can adjust accordingly.
  • Make an argument for what you want the Council to do. Some people seem to think that Councilmembers should vote a certain way just because they showed up and said so. This is wrong. The Council’s job is to exercise judgment and make decisions after weighing many factors, not to just to do whatever you ask. For all they know, you’re an idiot! So tell them not just that they should vote this way or that, but also why they should.

So, I think that’s everything. If you can’t make the meeting, or maybe, like Beverly Blythe, you find it depressing to come downtown, but are interested nonetheless, you can watch it on KTOP, Oakland Cable Channel 10. If, like me, you don’t have cable, you can still enjoy the excitement from the comfort of your home because KTOP offers live streaming video over the internet. Awesome, huh?

16 thoughts on “How to speak at the City Council

  1. John

    Development in SF has hardly suffered from anything, except from the lack of affordable housing for low and middle-income families. In any case, many of the primary members of Oakland Builders Alliance (OBA) are SF developers or from cities other than Oakland. You also might want to check the background and experience of planning commission nominees before you act – you might want to check the background and experience of all the planning commissioners for that matter.

  2. Jim Ratliff

    Awesome post, V. This is one that will be bookmarked and referred to for years.

    Three comments:

    (a) The first thing you should say when you address the council is “My name is Jane Doe . If you don’t, Ignacio might interrupt you to make sure it gets in the record.

    (b) The second thing you say is “I support/oppose whatever-it-is.” It helps to make this clear up front.

    (c) Don’t try to cram too much into your 60 seconds. If you speak a mile a minute, you’ll get a lot said but you might not get very much listened to. If you want to make an impact, I’d suggest limiting yourself to 125 words.

  3. dto510

    John, it is totally false to say that the primary members of the OBA are SF developers or from outside Oakland – the board is almost entirely Oakland residents. Development in SF certainly suffers from unaffordability, and that is in no small part caused by expensive anti-development policies that Ada Chan was instrumental in getting passed. Ms. Chan’s record of opposing residential and commercial development in the Mission and SOMA are highly inappropriate policy positions to bring to Oakland, and her strident support from anti-development groups in Oakland leads one to question how impartial she can be on the Oakland Planning Commission.

  4. Max Allstadt

    So let me guess…

    We’ll be hearing support for Chan tonight from STAND, who oppose almost everything over two stories tall and who speak of 60 year old houses as “historic”.

    STAND’s dogma about development is as archaic and short-sighted as some of their members. I saw one of these jokers insult Doug Boxer’s mother to his face at a Planning Commission meeting. They are shrill, out of touch, and their influence over the commission is fortunately minimal. If they are going to show up tonight and be the squeeky wheel, there should be some reasonable folks there to drown out their squeek.

    I don’t support runaway growth. I’ve been vocal in the past about the Mandela Grand project, for example, and even sent Nancy Nadel rhetoric to use against it. But if STAND supports Chan, then I say no to Chan. They’re just plain nuts.

  5. V Smoothe Post author

    I think it would be a huge, huge mistake to place Ada Chan on the Planning Commission. The Mayor, of course, should get quite a bit of deference when it comes to appointments, but the nomination of Chan, I believe, is so grossly inappropriate and would be so damaging to the ability of the Planning Commission to do their job, that I feel like this is the rare case where the the only responsible thing to do is for the Council to just say no.

    Chan’s behavior since her nomination was announced is extremely disturbing. She was advised to meet with the business community to discuss her nomination, but has failed to meet with any business interest in Oakland, not just the OBA, but also the various Chambers of Commerce. Meanwhile, she has been actively seeking support from union and anti-development advocacy organizations. A Planning Commissioner needs to be able to work with everyone, and to politicize one’s appointment and to so boldly stake alliances and draw battle lines before one is even a member of the Commission does not suggest one has any interest in contributing productively to the conversation or helping to reach consensus.

    Chan’s background and experience, while strong, is in ideological anti-growth advocacy. Oakland, especially in the current economic climate, cannot afford a Planning Commissioner who has a long track record of being aggressively hostile to private investment.

    dto510 wrote a really good blog about Ada Chan’s nomination today.

  6. Max Allstadt

    Can we expect her to try and cock-block grocery stores like Trader Joes for being union-neutral, as has been attempted in the past by the planning commission?

    We cannot afford to have something like that succeed. This city needs all the neighborhood shops and services it can muster, union or not.

  7. Becks

    Thanks for this awesomely thorough post V! Speaking before the council can be scary, but I encourage everyone to do it, at least once on some issue you care about.

  8. justin

    First, excellent post on how to get before the Council and what to say once you get there. I agree with every point you make, plus Jim’s one about saying your name. I would also strongly suggest the following:

    If at all possible, try to speak in front of the Committee that heard the item instead of waiting until the Council meeting. Councilmembers are far more likely to consider your points in that setting and the likelihood that a deal to secure votes has already been made is much lower. This is not possible with Commission appointments, but with other policy matters, it’s fine.

    Say the neighborhood or Council District you live in. That way, you know that at least one Councilmember will stop what they’re doing and listen to you. Also, if you happen to live in a more active and/or affluent community, chances are that others will listen as well.

    If you’ve lived in Oakland for fifteen years, but this is the first time you’ve spoken in front of Council, say so. New faces at public comment are always the most compelling. The usual suspects become just the usual suspects.

    As far as Ada Chan goes, I can’t comment on her merits. What I would suggest, however, is that the Council will not handle the situation well. What the council can and should do is actually have some sort of confirmation process so the Mayor’s appointees have to answer questions on the record from Council. I never understood why Council abdicated its role in this way. Maybe confirmation is mandatory for the “big” Commissions (Planning and Port) and optional (with vote of Rules Committee) for others.

    This way, we can actually hear from the candidates themselves, instead of basing everything on the associations of supporters and detractors, which is happening here. All these questions and suspicions are reasonable and the discussion should be open.

  9. VivekB

    Well crap, thanks V, I just went & signed up online for a speaker card. For those of you in attendance, you’ll be able to easily recognize me. Imagine Christian Bale, but fatter, balder, and with more grey hair. And my clothes aren’t as nice either. And tanner, *much* tanner. Other than that, I’m a dead-ringer for the guy.

  10. V Smoothe Post author

    Thanks, Jim and Justin for your additional advice. Listen to them, people!

    Oh, and one other thing. Dress nicely! I’m not saying you need to put on a suit or anything, but please, do try to make yourself presentable. You’re going to be on TV! Wear shoes. Wandering around Chambers barefoot is kind of gross. Also, take off your hat when you get up to talk.

    I would love to see something along the lines of what Justin suggests for Commission appointments.

  11. Jason

    This is a great blog. I’m sorry I have prior plans and can’t make it to the meeting tonight.

    Maybe this should be a regular feature of the blog whenever there’s a City Council meeting — organize people to go and speak. It seems like something we can do that will at least get on the official record….

  12. VivekB

    well, its 6:45 and I spoke 5 mins ago. I was actually first, even though I signed up online just a couple of hours ago. only spent 30 seconds, how long does it take to say “I agree”. good call on id’ing your neighborhood, jane certainly perked up.

    the guy after me spoke against it, felt that the public ethics commission was more appropriate. the next guy spoke for it, but pointed out that it was tothless and had the public ethics commission done its job perhaps we would not be in this place.

    then sanjiv handa spoke for 4 mins. no idea what he said, sounded like he was accusing the council of being corrupt. not sure as it was difficult to follow. then council chatted for a bit about something. then sanjiv talked again about the corruptness of the council again.

    dunno if this helped at all, time will tell.

  13. VivekB

    and how odd, I clearly screwed up as folks are speaking as I type about Whistleblower funding.

    Whatever, at least the council heard me. Some woman even came over and wrote down my info about my name, my email, and my support for it. I couldn’t have stayed until 10pm anyhow…

  14. Springbored

    Somebody up for this board who doesn’t bother to talk/meet with interested parties is…wow…foolish? Arrogant? At best, impolitic?

    Yikes. The speeches aren’t over, but…I just don’t see the council approving this person.

  15. VivekB

    Well, Ada didn’t make it despite Brunner’s proclamation of her as “a breath of fresh air, too often I see young people who go drinking with the right people get appointed to commissions”. Yeah, whatever.

    If you’ve got 1-2 hours to spare,I captured and spliced the inbound video stream for both the WhistleBlower/Hiring Practices audit, and the Planning Commish discussion and put them up on 1 file is 100MB, the other is 135MB. Sounds large, but it’s ~10mins on DSL. The WhistleBlower is up now, the Ada link will work in about an hour; takes a long time to transfer the file up to the site given I have a slow uplink connection.

    Due to my desire to keep this away from all the mega-search-robots that constantly crawl the site, sucking up my bandwidth, it’s registered & logged in users only.