At last night's City Council, a majority of councilmembers continued a years-long process of fine-tuning the body's "Rules of Order." Their unstated — and unfortunately critical — goal: to constrain one specific local elected official's ability to dominate, derail, and distract Alameda City Council from effectively conducting business on behalf of the city's nearly 80,000 residents and many other stakeholders.

Alameda City Council adopted a policy around its Rules of Order in 1994 — and that stood unchanged until 2018, 2020, 2021, 2021, 2022, 2023, and this meeting in 2024.

The reason for the flurry of rapid and iterative attempts to adapt the Rules of Order: Mayor and Councilmember Trish Herrera Spencer.


Going back to the minutes of May 15, 2018 — when the Rules of Order first were revised for the 21st century — gives a sample of the chaos that was a Council meeting under Mayor Spencer.

The City Clerk stops her presentation for repeated questions and extended debate by councilmembers. At one point, Mayor Spencer stops to take a vote on a referral she added to the agenda titled "Consider Directing Staff to Prioritize Efforts to Increase Safety and Reduce Crime" — but a majority of the City Council votes against that and then returns to debating the Rules of Order.

While extended debate goes on for 10 pages of the minutes document, it can be summarized with two back-and-forths between the then-mayor and the current-mayor. First, about the value of limiting speaking time by councilmembers and the public:

Councilmember Ezzy Ashcraft stated the Council time limits would be a good exercise in discipline for Council.
Mayor Spencer stated it is also an exercise in reducing free speech and limiting public comment; it seems like the goal is to not have public meetings if the public is not allowed to express their comments or if they are limited to one minute.

Another back-and-forth concerns the lengthy proclamations at the beginning of each Council meeting, with guests presented with certificates and giving rambling speeches:

The City Clerk noted the four proclamations tonight took 26 minutes.
Councilmember Ezzy Ashcraft stated part of the solution is preparing the recipients so they are aware how many other groups will be receiving a proclamation.
Mayor Spencer stated that she does not want to limit recipients to two minutes when they are accepting a proclamation; the proclamations are meaningful to the recipients and limiting their time may not give enough for them to tell their story.

To summarize: Mayor Spencer enjoyed the prestige of the position and the tapestry of talk. Councilmember Ezzy Ashcraft (as well as other councilmembers) wanted to actually get things done on behalf of city residents and stakeholders.

2020 - 2023

I won't try to summarize all the intervening rounds of updates to the Rules of Order other than to highlight two of the tactics that some of the updates have needed to address:

  • For a while, Councilmember Herrera Spencer pulled as many items from the consent calendar as possible when she wanted to push specific regular agenda items late into the night (to reduce the number of public commenters still awake) or to a future meeting (so that projects might miss key deadlines). She tried this multiple times to reduce the number of speakers who might speak in support of bike/ped projects and to sabotage stages of the city's Housing Element.
  • Also, a handful of residents who call themselves the Alameda Citizens Task Force, one or two belligerent tenants renting property from the city, and Councilmember Herrera Spencer occasionally decide to pick an almost random looking consent calendar item to turn into a big deal. Vice Mayor Daysog often joins in (although reluctantly, which just makes his own comments even more lengthy, awkward, and extenuating). Sometimes the reasons for all their opposition are clear — to be frank, some of this is just that most of these folks are probably Republicans who don't like taxes, public services, etc. — but other times the reasons for opposition are unclear. Sometimes it seems like as reactionaries they have to pick something random in order to have something to react against. Alameda Citizens Task Force's 4-page long letter to City Council provides a laundry list of random "routine" items that they don't like appearing on the consent calendar — related to homeless services, a raise for a staff position, among other topics — because they presumably want to be able to take as much time as possible to give public comments against those items. To rephrase Grover Norquist, they want to get each and every consent calendar and agenda item down to the size where they can drown it in the bathtub.

Don't get me wrong. The question isn't about having open debate about public matters at Alameda City Council. The question is about having debate about important public matters at Alameda City Council — and having that debate in a manner and at a time that's accessible to all.


A back-and-forth at last night's meeting reprised some of the themes from 2018:

Vice Mayor Daysog: "I believe we should guard against sacrificing public participation on the altar of streamlining our City Council meetings."


Councilmember Malia Vella: "Yeah, I do think we need to strike a balance, and I think that saying that meetings should last even past 11 [p.m.] really is a point of privilege that a number of members of the public don't have in particular. Students who are going to school and need to be at class early the next morning, working individuals, parents, family members, things like that. And I think we actually do a disservice to public access and transparency and an opportunity to participate and exclude vast numbers of the community when we allow for comments that are essentially monologues from individual council members or members of the public to take up so much time that we are then pushing agenda items late into the night."

The ideal and the current reality

In the ideal world, all five members of City Council will take seriously their responsibilities to effectively and efficiently conduct business on behalf of the entire city. Ideally they will all have read — or at least skimmed — the "packet" of agenda and staff reports in advance. Ideally they will have emailed the City Manager and department directors with meaty or clarifying questions they have in advance. Ideally they'll use their time together in-person to make remarks that are informed and relatively concise. And ideally they'll take brief and polite public comment from as many residents and stakeholders as possible. And while the Council members may not all agree in their opinions or in their eventual votes, they would ideally all be on-point and act in good faith.

But given that this City Council currently includes Councilmember Herrera Spencer, it's only thanks to ongoing effort over six years by many other, more responsible councilmembers that this governing body can stay on track and accomplish its necessary duties on behalf of everyone in Alameda.

"All citizens fully participate"