The Sanjiv Handa Rule, needed because two people rambling at public comments does not equal open government

4 Mar

After years of trying multiple means of controlling the time Sanjiv Handa wastes takes up at City Council meetings, on Tuesday night the City Council passed rule changes that might finally accomplish that goal.

I’ll get to that part in a minute, but first, I’ll cover the rule changes that even Sanjiv supported. The Council is finally admitting that their meetings are absurdly long so they should start them earlier and acknowledge that they end later. From the staff report, here’s a breakdown of the current and now amended meeting times:

Current

New

Commencement

6pm

5:30pm

Non-consent

7pm

6:30pm

Adjournment

10:30pm

12:00am

This is great news. The Council will start its ceremonial items at 5:30pm and hopefully end those and the consent calendar by 6:30pm. Even when they’re running late with long ceremonial items, they should at least start by 7pm. This will be a welcome change, since in the past, when ceremonial items dragged on, the Council sometimes didn’t get started until 7:30 or 8pm. The adjournment time change is really no change at all, just an acknowledgment that the Council almost never ends by 10:30pm (maybe once or twice a year they do). It’s pretty silly that at basically every meeting a motion has to be made to extend the meeting, so that will now be done away with.

But with the new rules on speaker limits, Council meetings could potentially end before midnight! If you’ve ever seen a Council or committee meeting, you know that Sanjiv Handa takes up a LOT of time at these meetings. He signs up for every single item and gets to speak for two minutes on each item. Sometimes the meeting chair negotiates with him and gets him to take all of his time at once and speak for a slightly shorter amount of time total. No matter what the chair does though, Sanjiv regularly takes up 45+ minutes of Council meetings and 20-30 minutes of committee meetings. It’s maddening.

And lately, David Mix has been joining him at every Council meeting so that together they end up taking up an hour and a half of each meeting! It might make them feel like they’re sticking it to the Council and standing up for Oaklanders, but their main effect is to turn people off by making the Council meetings run on and on until everyone who’s not paid to be there goes to sleep.

The new speaker limit rules seem to solve this problem. From the staff report, here’s the breakdown of the new speaker limits:

Meeting

Speaker Limit

Standing Committees (including Rules)

Speakers who submit more than 4 speaker cards (excluding open forum) will be given 2 minutes per card up to a maximum of 10 minutes. If all speakers are given 1 minute, speakers with 4 or more cards will be given a maximum of 5 minutes.

Rules Committee Meetings (Scheduling Item)

Speakers will have one minute per scheduling request up to a maximum of 5 minutes, provided that total time on all items on the Rules agenda (excluding open forum) for each speaker shall not exceed 10 minutes.

City Council Meetings – Open Forum

Speakers are allotted a minimum of 1 minute and a maximum of 3 minutes (no change).

City Council Meetings – Items before Non-Consent

Speakers with multiple cards will be given 2 minutes per item up to a maximum of 6 minutes (excluding open forum).

City Council Meetings -Non-Consent Items

If 20 or total cards have been submitted, speakers who submit 4 or more cards will be given 2 minutes per item up to a maximum of 10 minutes.

What does this mean? Let’s take Tuesday’s Council meeting for example. Under these rules, Sanjiv Handa and David Mix would have each been able to speak for 1 minute during Open Forum, 6 minutes during consent, and 10 minutes during non-consent. They would have each received a total of 17 minutes, or 34 minutes combined. This would have made Tuesday’s Council meeting an hour shorter!

Handa and Mix argued that limiting speaker time closes access to the government, and Councilmember Desley Brooks agreed. But this argument is  based on the assumption that two people rambling for an hour and a half (longer than most of the elected councilmembers speak at a meeting!) equals open government. Sure, it opens the government up to two people, but it closes it off to everyone else.

The Council and their staff get paid to sit through those ramblings, but the rest of us don’t. So when we get tired, hungry, or just can’t take it in anymore, we leave City Hall or turn off our computers and TVs. If you follow Council meetings on Twitter, you’ve probably noticed that between 7pm-9pm, there are several people tweeting the meeting. At 9:30 or 10pm, one or two drop off. By the time 11pm rolls around, it’s rare that even one person is left tweeting. Why? Well, for me, I have a job to get to in the morning and unless there’s something really exciting on the agenda, I can’t justify staying up so late.

With the new rules, I’ll make it through most meetings, and I bet others will too. As Brooks noted, it’s unlikely that many more people will speak at meetings, but that’s not the only important part about open government. More importantly, people will be able to sit through the whole meeting (or come close to it). More of us will know what happened at the Council, either by watching or by following on Twitter.

Thanks to Councilmembers Brunner, De La Fuente, Kaplan, and Kernighan for introducing these changes. I look forward to watching entire Council meetings and to having to use my mute button a lot less frequently.

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Current

Proposed

Commencement

6pm

5:30pm

Non-consent

7pm

6:30pm

Adjournment

10:30pm

12:00am

15 Responses to “The Sanjiv Handa Rule, needed because two people rambling at public comments does not equal open government”

  1. John Knox White March 4, 2010 at 9:09 am #

    Interesting and creative way of dealing with this. Bravo!

    I wonder if anyone knows of such limits for members of public bodies themselves? The Alameda School board has an elected member who goes on for hours to almost no effect.

  2. V Smoothe March 4, 2010 at 9:16 am #

    I was planning on writing about this for tomorrow, but for now I will simply say that I strongly disagree. Stringent limits on public comment is offensive to democracy. I am 100% with Desley Brooks on this one – the Council is just trying to silence people they don’t like to listen to. It’s their job to listen to everyone, whether those people are annoying or not. Every Councilmember who voted for this should be ashamed of themselves. It’s gross.

    • Becks March 4, 2010 at 9:54 am #

      I understand your position and that of Desley Brooks. It’s probably true that the Council’s intention was to silence Sanjiv, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t positive effects of this rule change.

      That said, I’d be open to other solutions that allowed Sanjiv to speak for the full allotted time but still prevented meetings from going so late. The Council could meet weekly, for example. Or they could start even earlier and allow Sanjiv to speak at the beginning of the meeting.

      I’m not against people being able to speak, but I do think it closes off government to have the meetings go so long and so late.

  3. ralph March 4, 2010 at 11:17 am #

    I am going with the positive outweighs the negative. Handa and Mix essentially crowd out other’s participation. The council has an obligation to let the public speak but I don’t think allowing 2 people to monoplize the time benefits the publict. I will admit this is a little clever and they could have probably achieved this in a different way, but I am okay with this approach.

  4. Naomi Schiff March 4, 2010 at 2:03 pm #

    By prohibiting the phrases “for the record” and “keep in mind” they could have reduced speaker time by 3% right off the top.

    I believe that mic-hogging has worsened since the advent of broadcasting meetings (which I approve of nonetheless). In the old days, there was no hope of TV appearances. What I don’t understand is the incomprehension on chronic orators’ part that overexposure equals diminished impact. You can be correct about something and still have no credibility due to delivery style (overly angry, scolding, sarcastic, or nasty) or plain boredom, or because as soon as they see that too-familiar character, officeholders and audience tune out. It is unfortunate because neither of these guys are stupid or always wrong.

    • Becks March 4, 2010 at 2:14 pm #

      You’ve solved the problem Naomi! Let’s just ban Sanjiv’s catch phrases🙂

      Seriously though, I agree completely. I’m not sure what Sanjiv and David Mix think they’re getting out of their rants since the Council doesn’t take their complaints seriously.

    • ralph March 5, 2010 at 12:08 am #

      oh, so agreed. what i did not write but what was on my mind were all of Sanjiv’s phrases. i hope that this forces him to focus on the issue and not letting the viewing audience know that for the record in 1998 this council…

  5. dto510 March 4, 2010 at 2:35 pm #

    The real problem here is that Council meetings are way too long. Last year the City Council met only 17 times in a regular meeting. Other California cities require their Councils to meet once a week. We wouldn’t need these limits if the Council met more often.

  6. Naomi Schiff March 4, 2010 at 9:20 pm #

    DTO: You are absolutely correct! They held weekly meetings until Danny Wan proposed this brilliant system we have now, which devastates public airing of any item that ends up being discussed after city council has zombied out at 9:30. We really should have weekly meetings, or at least three times a month. They’d be shorter and we’d have better and broader public comment, because fewer attendees would bail out in despair. Part of the idea was to facilitate committees meeting on alternate weeks, but as daytime meetings those are much less accessible for most citizens. I don’t know how to get them to change the rules, but I would think making it a campaign issue of some kind might help.

  7. Joel Ramos March 4, 2010 at 11:12 pm #

    This probably wouldn’t have probably happened if Mr. Handa wasn’t so smug, or maybe a little more witty, and less sarcastic. I appreciate constructive dialogue, not exercises in entitlement.. He was clearly abusing the system, and, I agree with Becks. Those who don’t respect the system make it intimidating for others who don’t feel as entitled to get up and speak.

  8. MarleenLee March 5, 2010 at 11:33 am #

    I’m not sure how I feel about the new limits on speaker time, but I agree that there need to be effective strategies to deal with this type of situation. If Sanjiv has so much to say, why doesn’t he start a blog?

  9. Max Allstadt March 5, 2010 at 6:16 pm #

    Gotta agree with Joel. The biggest problem here is that our court jester isn’t funny. I hear in San Francisco, there’s a guy who shows up and does a Sanjiv-type thing, but he sings all of his comments in an operatic voice.

  10. John Klein March 6, 2010 at 9:18 am #

    I think speakers should try to be mindful about using the Council’s time efficiently, but should not have to self-censor too much, either.

    Sanjiv would be vastly more effective if he’d file ethics complaints about some of the issues he complains of. David Mix does and so do I. Mix and I have both been able to contribute and shape policy this way and Sanjiv could do the same. I’m still waiting for the “massive” lawsuit Sanjiv’s been ranting about for years. It’s the old saying, ‘Put your money where your mouth is” and I haven’t seen that from Sanjiv.

    Still, there are some circumstances where the public needs to push back loud and strong and that’s often not possible in two minutes. If politicians tune out people just because someone isn’t ‘making nice’, that’s the wrong response from the politician. And, we all know that the ‘good cop/bad cop’ approach it can be very useful in getting to ‘yes.’ So, I don’t think it is completely helpful to insist people need to be nice, civil, courteous all the time – that’s not reality or human nature. One side of the room shouldn’t be telling the other side how to act because “nice” doesn’t always get the job done. But, yeah, regularly ranting for 20 minutes isn’t so helpful.

  11. Alicia March 6, 2010 at 9:20 am #

    It is undemocratic to have (1) bi-weekly council meetings and (2) one minute time limits. As a result of the first, the council meetings last far longer than any working person will sit up and watch or attend. As a result of the second, the citizens who wish to comment sound like babbling speed-talkers with incomplete expression of their ideas.

    I watch the committee and council meetings because they are so entertaining, in a very twisted way. A bit like a train wreck (i.e., Oakland’s financial state/my property tax dollars being squandered), a bit like opera (Brooks v. Quan, Brooks v. Kernighan, Quan grandstanding/pontificating, Kaplan trying to be relevant).

    I guffawed when Brooks was attempting to tear someone a new asshole and she added “And by the way, I’m a lawyer.” Ha!! A lawyer who never passed the California bar. [Did she pass any bar in any state?] “Let’s be clear” as she likes to say.

    And why in the world is KTOP’s website so neglected? They haven’t posted video links to meetings that happened over a month ago and they haven’t updated the schedule in a month. Again, it’s undemocratic to deny the people access to information about the conduct of the people’s business.

  12. len raphael March 6, 2010 at 2:28 pm #

    on reflection I agree w V on this. \

    It’s not as if Sanjiv is reading the telephone book: He’s expressing his point of view that is often contrary to that of most council members, but often correct.

    We need 10 more Sanjiv’s, willing to comment in depth on several topics.

    i find it more informative listening to most of the speakers then to the cc members, who seem to love to hear themselves talk.

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