Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu’s time limit on Council debate is problematic and could set a bad precedent for cities around Orange County, experts said.
“It’s the largest city in Orange County, so it’s a terrible precedent. If Anaheim’s going to do it, what about Seal Beach or Dana Point? So, to me, it’s a terrible precedent to establish,” said Chapman University political science professor Fred Smoller, a local government expert.
Fellow Chapman University political science and local government expert, Mike Moodian, said it’s an attempt by Sidhu to run Anaheim Council meetings like a business.
“I also see it as a trend, in which you have a group of politicians argue that government needs to be run more like a business. And I see what Sidhu is doing as sort of this corporatization of City Council. Trying to run things very efficiently and trying not to take so much time to discuss these things,” Moodian said.
Moodian said the time limit, which is two five-minute rounds of comments by each council member on any agenda item except public hearings, is dangerous for a healthy debate at City Council meetings.
“To me, however, it’s dangerous. Look, these City Council meetings are for members of the public, residents of Anaheim, to sit in city hall and see their elected leaders at work. Public policy, when you have individuals from different perspectives, it takes time. And everything can’t be done in an expedited matter.”
Sidhu didn’t respond for comment. Smoller and Moodian made their comments in phone interviews with Voice of OC.
The Mayor instituted the rule May 7 without having a Council vote on the matter, although Sidhu originally brought it to the Council at the April 16 meeting.
Four Councilmembers took issue with the proposed rule at the April meeting, including Councilman Trevor O’Neil.
“So I struggle with parts of this. I don’t want to do anything that’s going to limit debate when debate still needs to be taken up,” O’Neil said at the April 16 meeting. “Certainly a lot of this is subject to the chair (Sidhu) and his discretion, but I don’t have a reason to believe our chair is going to limit debate, when debate is to be had.”
Councilmembers Jordan Brandman, Denise Barnes and Jose Moreno also took issue with Sidhu’s proposed rule at the April meeting.
Brandman said he didn’t want the City Council to be run like the U.S. House of Representatives, which has strict time limits on representatives’ speaking times.
“While I understand the reasoning behind this, I don’t aspire to become the House,” Brandman said at the April 16 meeting.
Barnes said she was concerned that Sidhu had been chipping away at public comments, agenda-setting requirements, board appointments and Councilmember comments.
When Sidhu brought the proposed rule back at the May 7 meeting, he ended up pulling it from the agenda and instead implemented the rule without a vote.
Moreno told Voice of OC there are at least two major concerns with limiting Council debate at meetings.
“One, the public should have your reasons for a vote, but two, when a body consistently on a 5-2 vote — consistently votes in a block — and there’s minimal conversation and reason, it stands to reason that somebody is talking to somebody outside the public eye. It’s a common understanding,” Moreno said.
“It’s hard to fathom that seven people who have very different backgrounds in our city … that somehow they are magically aligned on so many issues that impact our city. That’s hard to fathom. So it stands to reason that there are conversations happening behind closed doors,” he said.
But Councilwoman Lucille Kring said unrestricted debate sometimes leads to political posturing.
“Having been on the council longer than anybody else, I’ve been there when certain Councilmembers, in recent times, have gone on and on and on and on. I find that they become blowhards, I find it that they are not even sticking to the point. They are going around the mulberry bush,” Kring said.
She also said most of the Councilmembers don’t use the full 10 minutes.
“I think if its a big issue and a lot of controversy, maybe we can extend the times. Not everybody takes all their 10 minutes. If you notice, Councilmember Moreno and Councilmember Barnes take their 10 minutes, but most of us don’t.”
Moodian said the time limit may give the appearance of predetermined votes.
“It could give the impression, at least, that decisions are being made in haste or are premeditated,” Moodian said. “What Sidhu’s trying to do is dangerous and it sends the wrong message.”
Kring said Councilmembers should be able to get their point across in 10 minutes.
“I’m a fan of trying to get your colleagues to see your point of view — I think that’s great. I think if you’re passionate about something and you should speak up on that issue,” Kring said. “But when people go on for 15 or 20 minutes about an issue, some people tend to tune them out.”
Along with Sidhu’s changes to agenda-setting requirements, which requires councilmembers to have two others support a suggestion before it gets on an agenda, Moodian said they add up to a dangerous precedent.
“They sound an awful like authoritarian tendencies and its dangerous what he’s trying to do at the end of the day,” Moodian said.
When the Council was debating two proposed temporary rent control ordinances from Moreno at its June 18 meeting, Sidhu imposed the rule on Barnes when she wanted to debate the second ordinance, which didn’t pass.
“Councilmember Barnes you have one minute. We have spent enough time on this. I’ll give you one minute to go ahead and answer,” Sidhu told her.
Moreno interjected, ”Mr. Mayor this is a separate item. You can’t limit her. This is a separate item, a separate motion. So she has five minutes. We all have five minutes, two rounds.”
Sidhu let her speak more than one minute after the exchange with Moreno.
Open government attorney Kelly Aviles said she doubts Sidhu can institute the rule without a vote by the Council.
“There’s a number of questions,” Aviles said. “First, whether a single person can institute rules for the body, I don’t think they can. The body acts as a whole. If there’s a rule that regulates the body, the body has to vote for it.”
She said the rule may be reasonable, so long as its content-neutral and doesn’t silence dissent.
“If they’re used in a manner that are silencing people who are dissenting, then it’s a problem,” Aviles said. “So if you are frequently allowing people to go over 10 minutes that you’re in favor of, but not the dissent. Then that’s a problem.”
Barnes and Moreno said the rule cuts into asking city staff questions about agenda items, which gives the public a better understanding of agenda items.
Kring said they should read the agendas and staff reports more closely to avoid asking staff questions, which cuts into their speaking time.
But Barnes said important information not found in staff reports is often found through asking staff questions.
“These aren’t just yes or no answers. They have great detail, which then validates our asking them and is knowledge that the public needs to know. So why is the mayor then imposing it, even on our staff, to hurry up and make it short so we can get business done? But that’s not getting business done. It’s causing a lot of stress and frustration,” Barnes told Voice of OC.
Moodian said government decisions shouldn’t be rushed.
“It’s dangerous because the fact the public deserves the right to see what their public officials have to say and to see this process at work and if we rush this, that could be dangerous.”
Moreno said he’s going to be challenging the rule at the council meetings, using current procedural rules, because no vote was taken to amend Council meeting procedures.
Under the current procedures, the Council needs a two-thirds vote — five members — to extend or limit debate times.
“I’ll be asserting our proper rules and procedures. We have given the mayor the benefit of the doubt to exercise judgement … and I no longer have confidence in his judgement as he has shot down debate,” Moreno said.
“He’s disregarding the policy and operating as despot. Unilaterally disregarding policies and procedures and rules and imposing his will on the Council and there’s a process to do that. If you want to impose your will, two-thirds of the council has to agree with you in that regard. That would mean he needs 5 votes.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.