By DENNIS WYATT
Manteca Mayor Ben Cantu wants council comments — the part of council meetings where elected officials express concerns, announce upcoming vents, offer kudos, or provide consensus on what they’d like to have discussed at a future meeting — moved from the last item on the agenda to the front of the meeting.
Cantu earlier this month expressed frustration that a number of items he wants to talk about had “grown to 21” because meetings were running so long.
The current council adopted a policy in December that requires that a vote be taken and a majority of the council concurring before a new agenda item can be started after 10 p.m. Regular meetings start at 7 p.m. There are often times special meetings that start on Tuesdays at 5 p.m. that are primarily closed sessions to discuss personnel issues, negotiations, and litigation that can legally be done away from the public’s eye that more often than not run until the start of the public meeting at 7 p.m.
That means by the time 10 p.m. rolls around, council members have been in meetings since 5 p.m. When you add the fact that meetings once they are extended can go to 11 p.m. and beyond, it can end up being a six-hour day.
That imposes issues for some council members who have trouble making the start of special meetings at 5 p.m. due to work conflicts. It also isn’t unusual for at least one council member to bail after 10 p.m. while the meeting is still going on.
Cantu himself often muses how tired and hungry he is getting in somewhat of a joking manner as meetings wear on.
Cantu, to address the issue, asked that an item be placed on the agenda when the council meets Tuesday at 7 p.m. to permanently move council comments to the front of the agenda.
Two weeks ago Cantu asked to have the council comments moved up that meeting and he was advised by counsel a vote was needed to do so. The vote was 4-1 with Councilman Dave Breitenbucher dissenting.
Previous councils have a history of playing politics with the parts of the agenda that aren’t specifically dedicated to a specific topic such as council comments and citizen comments.
When Carlon Perry was mayor, he moved citizen comments to the front of the agenda during the epic seven-year battle to decide whether to build the Big League Dreams sports complex. Perry, who was opposed to the complex first proposed for Woodward Park and later voted against building it at its ultimate site over philosophical differences regarding the lease that he equated to corporate welfare, allowed those who showed up every meeting to talk against BLD even if it wasn’t on the agenda and allowed them unlimited time to speak.
It was common during that period for citizen comments to start after the pledge and invocation and go on for more than an hour meaning the consent calendar — the first formal business — wasn’t touched until after 8 p.m. The longest citizen comments went was 90 minutes.
The long and unlimited time to talk that is now limited to two minutes unless there is council consensus for the speaker to continue, often pushed meetings well past midnight. And that often was on top of a special meeting beforehand. The longest meeting during that time went until 3:12 a.m. the next day for a marathon 8 hours and 12 minutes.
When Willie Weatherford was elected mayor, the first thing he did was switch citizen comments to the end of the meeting and imposed a two-minute speaking limit. That was in place for the entire 12 years of Weatherford’s tenure as mayor. Within the first several months as being mayor, Steve DeBrum moved citizen comments back to the front of the agenda.
Each time the mayor — operating on his own — moved citizen comments around.
City Clerk Lisa Blackmon in her staff report on Cantu’s request noted, “Typically this type of reorganization would be done by the City Manager as it is operational in nature. The City Manager and City Clerk work together on agenda item placement, ensuring a smooth flow, provide for items to be heard early on in the meeting in which guests or consultants are present, or items of great public interest that generate several participants be heard first when possible.
“Comments by Council and City Manager are typically heard towards the end of the agenda providing for the people’s business to be heard earlier in the meeting. Comments sections are typically used for the City Council or City Manager to provide updates to the public or each other on outside board meeting business, areas of interest in the community, event announcements, concerns, and often times result in opportunities for the City Council to provide the City Manager with consensus on future agenda item requests.
“City Staff recommends City Council and City Manager comments remain toward the end of the agenda and are moved earlier in the meeting by the City Council, by a consensus of the body, when needed.”
The council will discuss Cantu’s request when they meet Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Civic Center, 1001 W. Center St.