Mathews: City council meetings should end before the bars close

I propose a rule to improve California’s local democracy. When your local bars close, so must your city council.

This occurred while watching recent Santa Monica City Council meetings, gatherings so long (one recently went 10 1/2 hours) and so nonsensical that you might reconsider your support for free speech and self-government.

The bars had shut at 2 a.m., but the council was still going at 3:30 a.m. one October night when it logged its latest late-night crime against democracy: canceling plans to organize a representative assembly of residents to decide the airport’s future. The vote came after hours of public testimony from residents spewing conspiracy theories about developers and ballot measures that could only make sense at such an hour.

Alas, this sort of decision-making is to be expected in Santa Monica, which takes perverse pride in meeting agendas longer than the U.S. constitution. But long, late meetings plague other California political hothouses — from Huntington Beach to Richmond, where the council recently stayed up past 1 a.m. to endorse the Palestinian side in the Gaza war. Perhaps the late hours explain these cities’ polarization; UC Berkeley researchers found that the sleep-deprived brain is more risk-taking and extremist.

But even less politicized cities fall into the long-meetings trap when they start sessions in the evening, controversies intrude, and council members end up taking votes when they should be in bed.

There are ways to avoid going so late. Many councils start meetings early in the afternoon, while others have cut the length of time that residents, and even council members themselves, can speak.

But when such limits are not enough, councils need curfews. Some have done this successfully. San Jose’s City Council established a midnight curfew back in 2017. Other councils require members to agree to extend discussion past 11 p.m.

As a frequent attendee of council meetings, I’d suggest the problem is structural: We mistakenly require council meetings to serve two very different purposes.

First, they are business meetings of a city. Second, they are democratic events where people make their voices heard and perform politics. We’d be better off if we separated those two functions. Cities should have short, formal “business meetings” to make decisions they’re legally required to make. But, before making such decisions, councils should have separate gatherings, both in-person and online, devoted to getting real input — and not three-minute rants — from citizens.

Santa Monica would benefit from reforms like these, because the city’s longest meetings tend to produce head-scratching decisions. For example, California municipal watchers have long puzzled at Santa Monica’s expensive, years-long and mostly losing fight against voting rights lawsuits that other California cities have settled cheaply and quickly. When I asked a former official why Santa Monica recklessly fought, he said the city made too many decisions on the litigation late at night.

Former Santa Monica Councilmember Bobby Shriver once complained that when he tried to recruit more diverse candidates for the council, they often turned him down because of the long meetings.

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Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment


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