Is Four Minutes Enough?
There have been rumblings of discontent heard around town regarding a proposed rule change at City Council to shorten the time afforded to speakers from seven minutes down to four. Council should proceed and reduce the time limit anyway.
As frequent viewers and attendees of city council meetings are aware, residents are allowed to speak before council at a podium once for each order of business on the agenda, plus one additional time during the “Communications from Citizens” segment of the meeting. Over the past several years we’ve seen people inveigh against council for as long as twenty-five or thirty minutes, while others kept it short and, if not sweet, at least brief and to the point.
During the Notte administration, council meetings began to extend until midnight. Considering that the standard start time for a council meeting is 7:30PM, that works out to four and a half hours, much of which was spent giving everyone the opportunity to have their say on the issues of the day. To address the lengthy meetings, the speaking time was reduced to six minutes, with an additional minute of time to wrap up, for a total of seven minutes. Meetings were shortened to a still-long but greatly improved 3 hours or so.
As much as I hate to admit it, I was wrong about this rule change back when it was first enacted. I felt at the time like it infringed upon the freedom of speech, and I opposed the change. What I didn’t consider was the signal-to-noise ratio, which was unfavorable when residents were allowed to speak as long as they wished.
The signal-to-noise ratio is still out of balance, even with a seven minute limit. There are quite a few regular participants who wouldn’t know the meaning of brevity if it hit them upside the head in pamphlet form. People have used “their” seven minutes to campaign, to insult members of council, to insult other residents, make unfounded accusations, slander people, give “newsreel” monologues, and to frankly waste everyone else’s time.
The people most upset about shortening the amount of time seem to think the opportunity to speak equates to being “their” time. It isn’t. It’s a public meeting. It’s everyone’s time. As a meeting participant, you should have to use our time wisely. The only way to achieve this is to set a limit that hopefully causes as many people as possible to get to the point sooner, rather than later.
We’re not going to reach the point where Council has complete control over the subject material discussed at meetings. Even with a four minute limit, I hazard that some participants are going to deliver 30 seconds of useful material and three and a half minutes of stuff nobody needs to hear. And I worry a bit about a slippery slope here: will we eventually get to the point where we have two minute limits? Thirty-five second limits?
I am a proponent of the written word, as evidenced by this blog. If you have something you wish to discuss in a public forum that has details requiring explanation, you should put it in writing. That gives me, the reader, the opportunity to read your text, then go back and answer my own questions about exactly what you said. It enhances clarity. Plus, I can read your words a heck of a lot faster than you can speak them. It is a more efficient use of everyone’s time.
Many of the worst offenders who have wasted seven minutes of everyone’s time have done so while reading from a prepared text. I’d be willing to bet that I could accurately figure out what it was they were trying to say in approximately a minute or less if I just had that text before me. Blogs like this one are free. The level of computer skill required to put one up is not prohibitively high for most people: if you can use Facebook, you can blog. You’ve already written down what you have to say. So why are you reading something to me when I could read it for myself?
My opinion is that seven minutes is too much, and four minutes sounds better. I expect that often it will still result in wasted time, but reducing the amount of time wasted is a good thing. And if it shortens the meetings back down to a more reasonable amount of time, I might be persuaded to take in more of them in person, rather than skimming through the highlights on TV.
Shorten the meetings, Mr. Mayor and Council. The new limits will be fine.