How to watch (and understand) Oakland City Council meetings

13 Jan

I have a somewhat embarrassing admission to make. Last week, as I watched the first City Council meeting of 2009 online, I realized that it was the first time I had seen a council meeting in its entirety. I’ve attended many Council meetings in person, usually when I’ve spoken on an agenda item, but it’s really difficult to watch an entire meeting that way. It’s hard to sit in one place for so many hours, and it’s easy to get distracted and to find excuses to go outside to chat with someone.

And why had I never watched an entire meeting in the comfort of my home before? Well, the truth is that if there wasn’t a topic on the agenda that I cared about enough to bring me down to City Hall in person, I relied on V Smoothe to report back on the important issues.

As I sat through the entire Council meeting last Tuesday, I realized that council meetings are not very accessible if you’re not in the know. And since V Smoothe is on hiatus until February, I’m probably not the only one trying to figure out the best way to keep up with the Council in her absence.

Here’s a brief guide of how to watch and understand City Council meetings. Please fill in anything I’ve missed in the comments.

When are the meetings?

The City Council meets on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of every month, at 5:30pm (though they start with ceremonial items and the real meeting doesn’t start until at least 6:30pm). The Rules Committee meets every Thursday at 10:30 am. All other committees meet on the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of every month, at various times. The the full schedule with agendas is here.

How to watch a meeting:

  • At City Hall: All Council meetings are held in City Hall, at 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza, which is easily accessible by BART and many AC Transit lines. The full council and the rules committee meet in the Council Chambers, right up the stairs when you walk in to City Hall. All other committees meet in Hearing Room 1, on the 1st floor.
  • On your TV: You can tune in to KTOP on Channel 10. They show all the Council and committee meetings live and replay the Council meetings throughout the week. Take a look at their schedule for details.
  • Online: Don’t have a TV? Don’t worry. Catch KTOP’s live stream of the meetings here.

How to prepare for a meeting:

  • Read the agenda: If you go to a meeting at City Hall, there will be printed agendas that you can read. If you’re watching at home, you can download agendas ahead of time. Without an agenda in front of you, I can promise you’ll get lost several times during the meeting. Also, checking agendas regularly and ahead of time is a great way to see if you should attend or watch a meeting (i.e. if I see something about public transit, I know I need to check out the meeting).
  • Read the staff reports: Having the staff reports on each agenda item at your finger tips might be the most compelling reason to watch council meetings at home because I just don’t see many people printing out hundreds of pages of reports to bring to the meetings. You can find staff reports by clicking on any meeting agenda and then scrolling down to the item you’re interested in. Click on the blue number in parentheses below the agenda item and that should bring up staff reports on the item.

How to provide input on agenda items:

  • Contact the Council before the meeting: You can contact your Council members (district and at-large) by phone or email. Check the Council web page to find out who represents you and how to contact them. Unfortunately, Oakland’s bureaucracy sometimes moves at a snail’s pace so you’ll still see Henry Chang’s info on the site instead of Rebecca Kaplan’s. Anyone want to start a betting pool on how long it will take for that info to be updated?
  • Speak at the meeting: V Smoothe wrote an excellent, comprehensive post about speaking at City Council meetings. I have nothing to add, except the comment I left on that post: Speaking before the council can be scary, but I encourage everyone to do it, at least once on some issue you care about.

Most of the committees are meeting today so if you have some time, tune into KTOP or head down to City Hall to put all of this into practice.

4 Responses to “How to watch (and understand) Oakland City Council meetings”

  1. V Smoothe January 13, 2009 at 8:09 am #

    Nice overview, Becks. Two things I would add. First, the Council meets only on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of the month. Very rarely they’ll schedule a special meeting on the fifth week, but that isn’t part of the normal schedule. Second, although the meetings officially begin at 6, the first hour (sometimes two) of the meeting is often taken up with announcements and ceremonial items. It’s unusual for anything that matters to happen for before 8 (normally it will be much later), and probably not even worth tuning in before 7.

    I would also add that if you’re going to contact your Councilmember about an issue on the agenda, try to send the e-mail by Monday afternoon at the latest.

  2. Becks January 13, 2009 at 8:30 am #

    Thanks for the corrections and input V. I’ve corrected the meeting schedule info in the post.

  3. JHorner January 13, 2009 at 10:42 am #

    Indeed, the best way to make a difference in Council deliberations is to attend the appropriate Council Committee meeting. This can be hard, as they are usually held when normal people work, but it’s where the relatively in-depth discussion takes place. The smaller, less theatrical, forum also allows for (again, relatively) open discussion.

    Committee majorities are required to send items to the Council, so you really already have at least 3 votes in favor of a certain approach to an issue before the City Council even meets.

    On the bright side, if you can get used to the particular rhythm of the meetings, and you send an email to your Councilmember the Thursday or Friday before the Committee meeting, you will be among a minority of folks who comment with an actual chance to get a Councilmember thinking.

    As a former Council staffer, I’d say emails on Monday afternoon before a Council meeting are too late.

  4. Joanna January 13, 2009 at 12:56 pm #

    re: reading staff reports

    Could Council Members help us out and read them before hand as well?

    The participating public.

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