Thursday, July 19 , 2018, 8:59 pm | Fair 67º


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Santa Barbara City Council Changes Rules of Engagement at Meetings

Citing desire to streamline public interactions and procedures, council unites — mostly — behind new policies

The Santa Barbara City Council last month approved a directional sign program for downtown, ultimately opting for blue parking signs instead of green ones that city staff and a Pasadena-based consultant had been pushing.

The day of the meeting, Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce, was emailing and meeting with “key” council members to convince them to choose blue over green. It was an effective strategy that may have helped influence the final vote.

It’s also a practice that happens everywhere, but it’s the kind of thing that the City of Santa Barbara wants to discourage.

The City Council recently adopted a cadre of new rules designed to make council business more transparent, while tweaking the rules for public comment.

City Attorney Ariel Calonne prepared a 19-page PowerPoint presentation after Council members Frank HotchkissCathy Murillo and Bendy White met as a working group to come up with recommendations.

Calonne said the changes are intended to improve public participation, enhance sunshine and transparency, streamline meetings and establish fair hearing standards.

While meetings between the Chamber of Commerce and council members to talk about parking signs didn’t cause a dust-up largely because the only people backing a different color were city staff and the consultant, the stakes are sometimes much higher when it’s a developer with business before the council and tensions are running high.

“We are asking these council members to take in a tremendous amount of information, and sometimes it’s good on the front end for folks to spend some time one on one with folks, as long as they share that with the public,” Oplinger told Noozhawk.

“As long as those disclosures happen, the chamber doesn’t have any problem with that.”

The City Council voted 6-1 to adopted a “Rules of Procedure” that will change some of the ways the council conducts business on Tuesday afternoons and evenings.

Among the changes:

» Add a second public comment period at the end of a meeting when needed (if there are a large number of speakers, as determined by the mayor)

» Authorize speakers to pool time with a total limit of 10 minutes

» Emails sent to a majority of council members should be shared with the city clerk so they can become public documents

» Voluminous documents must be submitted — at the latest — when the council agenda packet is available online or the council has no obligation to read it

» Replace the 700-page Robert’s Rules of Order parliamentary procedures with the seven-page Rosenberg’s Rules of Order, developed by Yolo County Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg

» Prohibit “dangerous” pole signs and large signs that obstruct audience views

» All electronic devices must be on silent mode

» Reduce appellant and applicant time to 20 minutes from 30

» Avoid and discourage ex-parte contacts (informal one-on-one meetings with individuals or groups with business before the council)

» Council members are now allowed to communicate using electronic devices during meetings

» Council members now have the ability to censure other council members with a majority vote

» Establish two minutes per person as the maximum length of time for members of the public to speak

If you dump a “voluminous document” on the laps of City Council members, don’t expect them to read it.

“I don’t want to be responsible for having to review a large, thick report that is being brought in on Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock for the meeting,” Councilman Randy Rowse said.

Calonne said the switch to Rosenberg’s Rules of Order was made because they’re more clear and appropriate for local government.

Council members were mostly in agreement on the changes except for one: The original proposal called for all members of the public to submit comments by the time the item was read by the city clerk.

Murillo was critical of the idea.

“I think people should be able to stand up and speak up when they want to,” she said. “I like it when someone hasn’t even filled out a slip and then they say ‘I want to go up there.’”

Councilman Gregg Hart agreed.

“More public public comment is better,” he said. “Making it easier for the public to comment is better. If it causes a consequence to us in terms of the time of our meeting that is not even an issue for me.”

The council decided to leave it up to the mayor’s discretion to decide when to cut off public comment.

After initially voting in favor the changes, Hart changed his mind a week later, and voted no. He said he didn’t like the fact that a member of the public could potentially be forbidden from speaking if a speaker slip was filled out late.

Although the mayor’s discretion is a good “safety valve,” he said, he doesn’t want to take any risks.

“I just really in good conscience can’t support the changes we’ve made to the council procedures,” Hart said. 

The other issue that seemed to rankle the council was the issue of developers or other members of the public delivering large volumes of information to the council at the last minute.

In the past, the council members felt obligated to read through the material. Now, legally, they don’t have to.

“Up here whizzing through the letter while people are talking isn’t fair to the people submitting the letter,”​ Hotchkiss said of the current review process.

Murillo was even willing to toss that rule, but the council and city attorney felt it was important to encourage the public to submit documents sooner.

She said some people don’t understand this process and that they shouldn’t be punished for it. She said she does her best to read all information presented before making a decision.

“That’s kind of what we do,”​ Murillo said. “We are talking and listening and reading a letter at the same time. It’s kind of a cool skill.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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