By Ted AYALA
Not long after settling into the mayor’s office last year, Dave Weaver moved quickly to curtail the time allotted to the public to comment during the Glendale City Council weekly meetings. The resulting debate has left in its wake a deep divide among the public and, as last Tuesday’s meeting proved, within the council itself.
A motion ordering city staff to modify the allotment of time given to members of the public to speak during the oral communications portion of council meetings was quashed Tuesday night after the city council failed to reach agreement. If it had passed, the motion would have directed city staff to pare down the time portioned out to individuals to speak during oral communications from five minutes to three.
Quorum was met on a motion codifying changes made to oral communications by former mayor John Drayman that moved the segment from the beginning to the end of council meetings.
According to Mayor Weaver the cut in time would help speed meetings along while forcing speakers to focus their thoughts.
“I’ve learned over the years that if I can’t get my thoughts together and express them verbally in one to three minutes, then there’s something wrong with me,” he said. “You should know your topic matter enough. Anybody should be able to express themselves in three minutes.”
The Glendale City Clerk’s office, upon direction of the council, researched the way various municipalities and cities of similar size to Glendale manage their oral communications periods. Among the cities compared were Burbank, Fresno and Santa Maria.
The range of time allotted in those cities for the public to speak varied from two to five minutes, with three to five minutes being the average. Out of the 28 cities surveyed, seven allowed a period of five minutes for individual members of the public to speak. All seven hold their city council meetings only twice a month. Burbank meets three times a month. Glendale was the only city that had its council meet on a weekly basis and permitted their speakers five minutes.
Those five minutes, the mayor noted, are then spread across four meetings a month, which can then result in a single person being allowed up to 20 minutes a month to speak.
The time, the mayor added, was twice the amount cities of comparable size to Glendale allowed their public to speak. For him, it was crucial to limit that time in order to keep council meetings at a manageable length.
His sentiment was echoed by Councilmember Ara Najarian who said that his support of trimming oral communications times should not be seen as an attack on the city’s critics.
“Oral communications isn’t just about criticism nor am I averse to it,” he said. “But what I do see is that many speakers lose focus. Many times they are unfocused, wandering, and deal with tangential issues not relevant to what they’re trying to tell us. I would prefer three minutes of sharp criticism than five minutes of an unfocused diatribe. For that reason only I support [limiting] the time to three minutes.”
Councilman Zareh Sinanyan, who voiced the strongest objections to the motion, said that any shortening of the oral communications period was a “slippery slope” that could result in the city further limiting the public’s ability to comment.
He also felt that the motion was unfair, saying that somebody’s lack of skill in public speaking should not be a hindrance to their ability to speak freely during council meetings.
“I don’t understand why we’re discussing this issue,” he said. “In the 11 months I’ve been here, I haven’t thought of this as being a pressing issue for the city. We owe it to our residents to allow them to express themselves. They live here, they have a voice, and they should be able to express themselves freely.”
Sinanyan also said that the city’s singularity in allotment of public speaking time is not reason enough to curtail it.
“We stand alone and we should be proud of that,” he added. “Ours should be the standard that [other cities] should aspire to. Five minutes is a fair amount of time.”
Kenneth Langdon, who spoke in opposition to the motion, said that however the council chose to perceive them, oral communications is “for the people, not councilmembers.”
“This is the only opportunity the public has to communicate with the city council to get their thoughts out,” he said. “The public has a right to communicate to the council on issues that we feel is important. If that’s too much for you, you can resign.”
Joining him was Mike Mohill who said that the city’s residents and business owners have a “right to an open, transparent government.”
“[This motion] would stifle the people’s voice,” he said.
A middle ground was proposed by Councilmember Laura Friedman, who suggested that oral communications times be kept as they currently stand but to allow the mayor greater discretion in shortening them when needed. She said that the city’s discretionary shortening of the time is also a show of consideration for members of the public who cannot or do not want to potentially wait until late in the night to finally have their turn to speak.
“When I started it was not that uncommon for meetings to extend to 11 p.m.,” she recalled. “They could even go much longer. I think there should be some discretion. Everybody should get time to speak at a decent hour.”