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Merced City Council moves to reduce drawn-out public meetings

Ax falls on allowing voicemails to be played

 

Members of the Merced City Council spent about half of its five-hour-long meeting on Monday night discussing and implementing ways to streamline their regular public proceedings — particularly in the area of “public comment” made by citizens.

The changes come after a marathon meeting on June 3 that lasted well past midnight, due in part to the number of people chiming in on the issue of raising the Pride Flag in Bob Hart Square. Over the past year, there have been similar viewpoint tsunamis that have flooded into City Hall regarding such things as the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, affordable housing, and funding for public safety efforts.

“For me, this was about taking a look at our meetings, and wanting to bring it back to doing city business in the most effective way possible,” said Councilman Shane Smith, one of three city leaders to sit on a subcommittee to review meeting procedures. “I respectfully submit that we are not able to do that when our meetings go until midnight — when single agenda items can take 2 hours, when comments amongst the council and the public can get so emotional that we lose sight, intellectually, of what it is that we have to make a decision about.”

The most debated issue regarding the new changes had to do with playing voicemails out loud during meeting discussions. Since the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the council has welcomed the playing of all 1-minute voicemails sent in by citizens prior to council meetings, either for general public comment or regarding specific agenda items. However, critics of the policy say it can be “weaponized” to derail healthy discussion by the playing of recording after recording with people making the same point, or even reading directly from form letters designed for impact by special-interest groups.

For example, a total of 15 voicemails were played out loud on Monday night for the discussion about voicemails. During the June 3 meeting, a whopping 61 voicemails concerning the raising of the Pride Flag were all played out loud for more than an hour. And this was in addition to in-person public comment by about 20 residents.

Leaders on Monday night voted to ditch the voicemails in a 4-1 vote. Council members Jesse Ornelas and Bertha Perez were not in attendance. Councilman Fue Xiong voted NO.

Preceding the vote was an interesting exchange between Councilmen Smith and Xiong.

Smith said: “We have to be honest. When we see members of the council calling on their constituency to leave voicemails to support an issue, that’s a weaponization of the voicemail process. That’s not a genuine public comment. We have to be honest with what’s actually happening. It’s not enriching our meeting. It’s not enriching our ability to do business for the entire city.”

To this, Xiong admitted that he encourages community members to attend meetings and speak out as “part of public engagement.” He also said that he “shares his opinions” — presumably on his personal social media platforms.

The Times found multiple “calls to action” on the “Fue Xiong for Merced City Council” Facebook page that urge residents to attend or send in voicemails concerning City Council agenda items. One of those calls to action was regarding Monday night’s meeting and it featured instructions on how to leave a voicemail.

Last year, Xiong spoke at the Pride Flag raising in downtown Merced and urged those in attendance to speak out to leaders about city funding for the local Pride Center and its efforts. During the following City Council meeting, a total of 25 voicemails were read out loud during a final budget plan review for the coming fiscal year, and the majority of the recordings called for support of the LGBTQIA+ resource center in an apparent last-ditch effort to get funding.

Mayor Matthew Serratto on Monday night stressed the importance of receiving public input at meetings, but added that the council must find the “right balance” so meetings don’t become “overwhelming and the quality drops.” He also noted that city department heads and staff members who sometimes take part in long City Council meetings are also required to show up at work the next day at their regular hours.

Councilwoman Sarah Boyle stressed that residents can still send emails, make phone calls, and leave voicemails to individual council members at any time. Contact information is listed on the city’s website.

City Attorney Craig Cornwell, who was hired last November, led Monday night’s presentation on the meeting’s procedural changes.

“Understanding that no one likes change but babies, I understand the risk in presenting this item,” he said. “But it started my first council meeting that went into the midnight hour. And I went home with a lot of energy to present ideas for more efficient council meetings. Luckily for the city there was a knowledgeable, passionate subcommittee in place that calmed me way down and as a result of two or three meetings there are some changes we would like to present to the entire body and to the residents as well.”

Here are the changes to meetings that were approved by the City Council on Monday night, along with the vote result in parentheses.

• All in-person public comments per citizen, per agenda item under discussion, and during the non-agenda general comment period at the beginning of the meeting will be limited to 3 minutes. In all cases, the mayor would be allowed to reduce the time limit. This action eliminates a previously accepted 5 minutes of speaking time when there were three or less citizens speaking on any particular item at any given time. (Unanimously approved.)

• The mayor has the option of making a motion to limit the number of public speakers during any specific agenda item discussion to 10 speakers or 30 minutes — whichever comes first. A majority of the City Council would have to approve. This does not apply to the general “oral communication” period at the start of a meeting. (3-1, Xiong voted NO.)

• Emails sent in by residents by 1 p.m. on the day of the council meeting will be sent to leaders and posted to the website as part of the record for that meeting. Late submitted emails will be posted on the website subsequently. (Unanimously approved.)

• A proposal to add a consolidated public comment period for items listed on the council’s routine Consent Agenda, before leaders discuss or take action on them, was dropped during the discussion on Monday night. There was also a proposal to cease the public’s ability to pull items from the Consent Agenda for discussion. This did not come to a vote. Residents are still able to comment on any Consent item that is pulled separately for discussion, and furthermore residents can still individually request an item to be pulled for discussion.

Said Councilman Smith, who wanted the proposals to pass: “This is another area where I see weaponization of a tactic. Our Consent Agenda is frequently splintered. Something that is supposed to exist for efficient purposes ends up taking a third of our meeting sometimes.”

Of note: In the year before Fue Xiong became a Merced City Council member, he would frequently show up during Consent Agenda periods, as a citizen requesting items to be pulled for separate consideration. City staff members were frequently called up to clarify details about certain line items Xiong would point out. Currently, another local regular to council meetings, Rick Wedling, consistently asks for Consent Agenda items to be pulled for discussion.

• During a discussion of the council’s adherence to Roberts Rules of Order, the council voted to allow members of a “successful side of a vote” to be able to motion for a reconsideration of their vote “by the next scheduled meeting.” (3-1, Xiong voted NO.)

• City Council directed staff to come up with some proposals to limit the number of ceremonial items traditionally presented at the start of meetings, and perhaps having some conducted inside City Hall before the official meeting starts. (Unanimously approved.)

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