It was nearly 1 a.m. and the Pacifica City Council, after 6 1/2 hours of presentations and discussion, was on its penultimate agenda item for the regular meeting on Feb. 28, 2022.
“Good morning, because it’s no longer evening,” said Pacifica resident Cindy Abbott in her public comment. “I am rather disappointed to have such an important item so late in the evening.” The issue: a proposed infrastructure project to reinforce the crumbling cliff at 400 Esplanade.
Middle-of-the-night discussions of important city matters have become the norm in recent months. Since May, the City Council has met six times for an average of six hours, frequently adjourning around midnight. This measure includes study and closed sessions. Those involved say the marathon meetings are the result of increased public participation, lengthy appeals hearings and an inquisitive group of council members.
An analysis of the data shows meetings are getting longer. Over the past three years, the average meeting has been about 3 1/2 hours long. Whereas two years ago six of the 24 meetings — 25 percent — ended after 11 p.m., this past year, 13 of the 28 meetings — nearly half — have gone that long.
City Manager Kevin Woodhouse says city staff tries to manage agendas to keep discussion of reasonable length, but that it can be hard to predict how much the public will want to weigh in. While the council members are allowed to vote to adjourn the meeting before discussing all agenda items, there are sometimes time-sensitive issues that they are legally required to address.
This summer’s agenda items, which include the General Plan, the Sharp Park Specific Plan and the budget, have been generating more discourse than usual, said Mayor Mary Bier. These important and impactful decisions make for long staff presentations, batteries of questions from the council and lots of public input.
“We have a very inquisitive council, so they ask a ton of questions. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I’m just saying it takes up a lot of time,” said Bier.
The consent agenda, which the council used to breeze through, has recently sparked conversation. “Sometimes we don’t get to the regular agenda items until 9 p.m.,” Bier said.
Resident appeals on the Planning Commission’s decisions in particular have taken up hours of meeting time and postponed the council’s approval of plans.
The time frame in question includes the pandemic and the switch to remote meetings. If the switch to the virtual format is to blame, it is probably only one piece of the puzzle. When the City Council began meeting virtually in April 2020, the meeting times did not immediately increase.
“I think Zoom has enhanced public input. They can do it from the comfort of their couch or get up and get a sandwich” said Councilmember Mike O’Neill. Woodhouse, too, thinks public participation has increased due to Zoom.
Bier noticed the uptick in public scrutiny of the city’s actions during the pandemic, but credits shifts in public trust more than the easy access granted by Zoom.
“I think there’s just like a microscope going on right now,” she said. “The community is super intense on keeping their eye out on the city. I guess it has to do with public trust.”
When the council returns to meeting in person in October, Bier expects the same level of engagement from the public.
Like Bier, Abbott has noticed faltering public trust. “If the public gets to a point where they aren’t thinking that elected officials and staff are hearing them, it creates a situation where more people speak up, and I think that’s what’s happening now,” she said. “I don’t see that easing up for a while.”
Though she has enjoyed the comfort of her home while participating in meetings, Abbott says she intends to be present at the chambers come October, when the council is scheduled to return to in-person meetings.
These prolonged meetings have consequences for city staff, council members and the public. For city staff and council members, they are exhausting.
“It really affects the rest of my week. I have a full-time job,” said Bier. The virtual platform is particularly fatiguing, Bier added.
“It’s harder on my brain, the longer we’re on Zoom. You don’t strain as much when you’re in person. It’s still hard to do anything at that hour of the night, but it’s a little harder to be on Zoom, frankly,” she said.
O’Neill was quick to point out that “there’s an upside to Zoom and a downside to Zoom.”
“I have to admit, the chair in my house is more comfortable than the chair in the council chamber,” he said. When the meetings do stretch to the wee hours of the night, participants can crawl into bed much faster than if they were at city hall.
Perhaps more impactful than personal comfort is the driving time O’Neill has saved. He is on the board of directors for San Mateo County’s Commute.org, whose goal is to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled by commuters. He has personally experienced how Zoom can achieve that goal. As a participant of countywide meetings, he recalled having to drive 45 minutes to Redwood City, only to have the meeting canceled due to lack of quorum. Zoom saves him these hour-and-a-half round trips. Plus, it may make it easier to reach quorum, as the barrier to attend is lowered for all.
Bier says she’s working with the city manager to return meetings to a reasonable length by shortening the agenda and holding only one public hearing and one appeal per meeting.
She desires to keep public discourse flowing. “I just think that it’s really important for us to continue to get public comment,” she said. While some have advocated to reduce public comment time from three minutes to two minutes per person, she wants to let constituents have their say.
Bier says she would prefer more frequent, shorter meetings. O’Neill, on the other hand, worries that more frequent meetings demand too much staff time and interfere with other community events, county meetings and personal time. He is in favor of earlier start times.
Abbott is grateful for her neighbors’ commitment to the democratic process,
even when it goes past bedtime.
“Pacificans like to make public comment,” she said. “It's been a great part about being here in this city. We get the chance to participate in the process and we take advantage of it.” ▪