For many city councils, the price of democracy is that moment of peak fatigue, after deliberations have gone on too deliberately. A rule of thumb is that, when the meeting goes late, the quality of discussion is not great.

For that reason, many city councils have rules that put a fence around how late a meeting can go. 

Tempers were short and angry words were exchanged when a recent Berkeley meeting went past midnight and more members of the public wanted to be heard on the topic of a draft of the city’s Climate Action Plan.

At the end of the meeting, bleary council members were unsure if they were voting on a resolution to extend the meeting or voting on amendments to the Climate Action Plan.

Mayor Tom Bates was trying to hasten the vote because of symbolism, hoping to have a plan in place by the next day, Earth Day. By the time the council voted to adjourn, it was Earth Day. It was after midnight.

The issue was resolved at the next meeting. All’s well that ends well. 

“We have a rule on the books that we’re supposed to end at 11,” said Bates. “Eleven is pretty much the bewitching hour.” 

As he presides over meetings, Bates takes into account the need to vote to extend the meeting past 11 with respect for residents who have come to speak on the issue. In many cases, it’s unfair to ask people to come back for another meeting if an issue is postponed, he said.

“We’re a perfect candidate for a TV reality show,” Bates said of the ebb and flow of Berkeley council meetings. 

Most meetings have some street theater mixed in with the participatory democracy.

Berkeley will always have a place in the history of participatory democracy. It was home to the Free Speech movement in 1964-65, a civil rights landmark. 

Most California cities wrestle at one time or another with the proper way to close discussion and vote on issues before council members become too punchy. Often this is expressed by putting a time limit on speakers. Most cities have a three- or five-minute limit on speakers. In Berkeley, this limit is two minutes.

“Berkeley is known for having lots of people wanting to speak on an issue, which is a good thing,” said Bates.

At one time, Bates noted, Berkeley council meetings started with a “lottery” in which five people’s names were drawn out of a drum, out of all those who wished to speak on non-public hearing matters. After some people objected, the city received a legal opinion that that method was illegal. Now the policy is that if less than 10 residents have signed up to speak, they get two minutes each. If it’s more than 10, they get one minute.

“You can say a lot in a minute,” said Bates.

In his six-and-a-half years as mayor, Bates said he has tried to limit the chaos in meetings, urging speakers to stick to the topic at hand. That advice includes council members — Bates said he has instituted two-minute limits on the lawmakers as well.

The Berkeley council policy guide has this rule:

No Council meeting shall continue past 11:00 p.m. unless a two-thirds majority of the Council votes to extend the meeting to discuss specified items; and any motion to extend the meeting beyond 11:00 p.m. shall include a list of specific agenda items to be covered and shall specify in which order these items shall be handled.

Galt, a small city in the Central Valley, is no stranger to late meetings, either. In an attempt to control the clock, Vice Mayor Barbara Payne put forward a resolution reducing the time for residents to speak from five minutes each to three minutes. Her resolution was voted down in January by other council members who didn’t want to restrict residents’ time.

Payne said she wanted to make sure the council retained enough time to take care of scheduled business. Also, she said, she felt sorry for city staff members who had to stay late even when discussion didn’t pertain to their departments. And fiscally, she noted, some staffers were being paid overtime as the clock ticked toward midnight.

“After a certain hour, after 11, you’re not as sharp and maybe your decision making isn’t as good,” said Payne. She lost the vote but, she noted, ever since then the meetings have ended at reasonable hours. One recent meeting ended at 8:40 p.m. 

Sometimes it’s enough just to raise awareness.