Order! Or, why can’t people respect the rules of order?

I’ve been attending every city council meeting for nearly a year now, with a few exceptions — I often can’t make special city council meetings, once I had a hacking cough, and sometimes I’m traveling. Overall, though, if there’s a meeting, I’m there, and I have a lot of thoughts about my experiences over the course of the last year, but there’s one thing in particular that’s irking me at the moment: People who refuse to respect the rules of order.

City council meetings are bound by the Brown Act, which includes some pretty strict details on how such meetings are run, in accordance with a mandate to maintain transparency for the public good. I don’t expect every single person who attends a meeting to have read the Brown Act in detail (I didn’t for quite some time), but the agenda provided quite openly to all attendees highlights some key information of relevance — for example, the public comment period on nonagenda and consent calendar items would be the period to comment on both of those things. The council cannot take actions during this comment period. Both of these things are printed on the agenda. The agenda also provides information about how to submit a speaker card (and just in case, the mayor usually asks if anyone has comments before bringing an agenda item back to the council).

When I attended my first city council meeting, I had no idea what was going on. I fortunately had mentors, and skimmed the agenda to get a sense of what I needed to know. And I have some allowances for people who have never been to a meeting before — no one gets it perfect at the outset. But people who have been coming to meetings for a while, or people who have been provided with instructions, have no excuse for being out of order.

To wit:

When people make scurrilous allegations during the public comment period, the city council is allowed to respond to correct the record. This is not an invitation for an argument or discussion. If I say ‘city council members make thousands of dollars a month!’ the city council can respond to correct my statement. Yet, some people persist in trying to argue with city council, and get extremely stompy and pouty when the mayor or a council member tells them to sit down and zip it. This is a democracy, sure, but it’s not a free for all.

Remember that thing about the city council not taking action during the first public comment period? It means they cannot: Put items on future agendas; pull consent calendar items; form or modify special committees or task forces. All they can do is listen to comments and take notes. They may suggest that a constituent contact someone and provide information about how to do that. But they would be breaking the law to take an action, which is why they don’t do it, and that information is plainly printed on the agenda, so stop screaming about it.

If you want to get an item onto the agenda, it’s quite easy: You go to city council and you ask. Sometimes you need to meet with a council member to discuss whatever it is and ask that it be brought for discussion. Sometimes you’re responding to a prompt from the city council and it’s even easier — as for example when the council indicated that it would sign a ballot argument prepared by a public organisation with regards to a ballot measure, and that organisation brought the argument for placement on the agenda so it could be discussed.

If you want to know what the city council will be discussing, the agenda is available in advance! When it comes to public hearings (which are separate from the regular agenda), the city council is required to ‘notice’ said hearings, which means they need to provide ample advance warning about when and where they are taking place. Which the city does. If you bother to look. So don’t act all shocked when they happen.

Complex matters may appear before the council multiple times while it discusses the action it wishes to take. Guess what: Don’t show up for the last time, when everything has been thoroughly debated and council members are signing off on it, and act all huffy that you didn’t get a chance to participate. You did. You just chose not to take it, and yes, I am looking at you, person whom I have never seen at a city council meeting ever.

City council minutes are available, by law, allowing you to peruse the events of past meetings. Many city councils also record proceedings, so you can watch/listen to those as well. There’s not some big conspiracy. When people tell you to go look something up in the minutes, yes, they are quite possibly implying that you should have done thirty seconds of research before storming into the meeting to complain about your pet issue.

Most city council members are, at their heart, reasonable people, and I say this even though I disagree vigorously with many of the policy stances taken by our own city council — in private conversations with them, I’ve found all our councilmen to be perfectly ordinary human beings who, while we may differ on a lot of key issues, can still find common ground. They’re also usually underpaid, given the sheer volume of work that they do. It would behoove you to not be a dick to them, and to the rest of us, by being a disruptive asshole during a meeting that’s already far longer than anyone wants it to be.

Image: KOMUnews, Flickr