City Council Agendas

I’m not 100 percent certain, but, near as I can determine, this is all the city code says about placing items on the agenda of a city council meeting:

2.04.050 Presenting matter to Council.

Every official, board, commission or other body connected with the city government and every citizen, individual, corporation, committee or civic group having any reports, communications or other matters to be presented at a Council meeting shall notify the City Clerk of that fact and the subject thereof in writing before noon of the Thursday preceding the day of such meeting, whereupon the City Clerk shall prepare an agenda setting forth such matters and the nature thereof under the headings set forth in Section 2.04.060, and setting forth all other matters to come before such meeting. The City Clerk shall, not later than Friday preceding such meeting, cause one copy thereof to be delivered to each councilmember. Matters deemed by the City Council to be of emergency are excepted from the foregoing provision. This section does not apply to oral communications from the audience when a Council meeting is in session. (Prior code § 2704)

(end quoted material)

The problem with this code is that it is obsolete. It assumes that the city is actually open for business on a Friday, for example. It also seems to imply that anyone (not just council members or the city manager) can ask to place as many items on the agenda as he or she wishes. That means that if I wanted to be a one-man filibuster, I could walk into the city clerk’s office on noon of a Thursday before a city council meeting and present the city clerk with a list of, say, 100 items for inclusion on the agenda. The city clerk would then need to work as long as it took to assemble an agenda with those 100 items.

When the city council met the next Tuesday, I would then have the right to speak for three minutes on each of my 100 items. Any other person would also be free to speak for three minutes on any of my 100 items, as well as three minutes on any other items on the agenda, plus three minutes for any item not on the agenda.

Two weeks later, I could do the same thing all over again. Every two weeks, the city council would need to listen to me for a minimum of five hours, and that’s just the time I would spend on my own items. I could also spend three minutes on an item not on the agenda, plus three minutes on every other item on the agenda.

I haven’t read the proposed new ordinance on placing items on the city council’s agenda. The city attorney says it’s boilerplate: the same sort of language that’s used in pretty much every other jurisdiction in the state. I suspect it probably is boilerplate. And if we were a normal city, with a normal city council, we’d be able to function with such an ordinance.

Unfortunately, we’re not that "normal." So, on the one hand, I don’t like the idea of the agenda becoming a free for all, where various councilmembers keep placing "gotcha" items on the agenda to try to embarrass their political opponents. But it isn’t hard to imagine a city council majority and city mayor that absolutely refused to heed the calls of a large segment of their city’s population that either supported an issue the council majority opposed, or opposed an issue that the council majority supported (Wal-Mart, anyone?). In that sort of case, wouldn’t it be nice if even a council minority of one had the power to force his or her colleagues to at least talk about issues they would rather sweep under the rug?

We definitely need to amend the existing ordinance. But, since we’re not a normal city, we can’t yet adopt a normal ordinance. Hopefully, our city council members can (separately, because if a quorum starts deliberating on this, it’s a Brown Act violation) start thinking about an agenda ordinance that recognizes the reality of our city government and city council members.