If you blinked, you missed it. But at last week's meeting of the City Council's all-powerful Rules Committee, a majority voted to lock in a limit on the amount of time a council member is allowed to discuss any particular item during a City Council meeting.
The committee room that day, jam-packed with employees from the city's troubled Data Processing Corp., was raucously clearing out at noon when Councilmember Brian Maienschein, while standing up to leave, made the motion, which was seconded in lightning-quick order by colleague Scott Peters.
Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins, another Rules Committee member, shook her head at what she perceived as a railroad job, but one she said she'd be more than happy to discuss when the matter comes before the full council. She was joined by colleague Jim "MadDog" Madaffer in opposing the new enforcement limit, although he declined to comment.
Atkins nearly blew her coiffed top after the meeting let out, alleging that the measure-10 minutes of discussion per councilmember per item, with a possible five-minute extension-was aimed at her, Madaffer and, most particularly, Councilmember Donna Frye, who tends to grill staff members relentlessly when she's not clear on an issue, much to the consternation of some less-thorough colleagues.
"I think it's unnecessary," Atkins told CityBeat, "and it's designed to limit a council- member's questions and discussion. I don't understand why anyone would want to cut off discussion on important issues of council-members representing their constituents. The current practice works fine. There is nothing broken."
She added that Mayor Dick "Timex" Murphy runs a tight ship meeting-wise, contrary to earlier times when "council meetings used to go extremely late. We've found the proper balance."
In explaining his motion, Maienschein, whose votes frequently clash with those of Frye and Atkins on major issues, said he's not trying to limit debate or suppress dissent. He argued that he's simply performing a public service.
"There is a need because council meetings oftentimes are so lengthy, and the time an agenda item is discussed is so uncertain, that public participation is discouraged," he said in an e-mail to CityBeat. "By imposing a time limit on councilmember speeches that is hardly drastic, the public will be better treated at council meetings."
Note the use of the word "speeches." Some have called Maienschein's proposal the "anti-grandstanding" measure, but the north-city councilman denied that he had anyone in mind when he came up with it. "It's not targeted at anyone," he said, "and, in fact, it won't end grandstanding, but it will just limit any grandstanding to 15 minutes!"
Peters said he backed Maienschein's motion because "I felt that it was an appropriate measure to keep the meetings running efficiently. We ask the public to complete their testimony in three minutes, so it seems reasonable to limit council members to 15 minutes, with an ability to ask for more time if necessary."
As written, however, the measure-also supported by councilmembers Michael Zucchet and Ralphie Inzunza-would limit comment to no more than 15 minutes.
Frye at first said she found the attempt at limiting discussion "funny," but later seemed ready to follow her colleagues' lead "if they really want to take these rules and really follow them. So be it."
The "permanent rules of council," which regulate everything from the hours of council meetings to how an ordinance can be enacted, are part of the city's municipal code and are quite clear about how long council members may speak: "Each councilmember shall be allowed the opportunity to speak and shall be limited to a maximum of three (3) minutes."
That's right, three minutes. But that rule is never enforced-the same holds true for another rule that limits public comment to 15 minutes per side of an issue-which is why Frye snickered when she realized that Maienschein & Co. had proposed a quintupling of the current limit for councilmembers.
She knows she gets looks from colleagues who seem eager to get out of council meetings, like children waiting for the recess bell. She calls such impatience with her dogged style "bang-on-the-watch time," which becomes a situation "where they make you feel bad if you ask a question, or if you talk. It's like you're shamed. "Oh my God, how dare you ask this question.' What they're saying is, "We've already got the plans figured out, and you're bothering us.'"
So, what to do? Well, if Maienschein and his cohorts move ahead in coming weeks with their plan, she intends to become quite the rules stickler, including over practices the mayor now controls. "We can follow the rules," she said. "For example, the committees and the chairs and the deputy mayor are to be determined by the council. It doesn't say the mayor. It doesn't say the mayor nominates. It's the council-that's what it says in the permanent rules. So fine, let's go there."
As reported in Spin Cycle last week, Carl DeMaio has little time to worry about stepping on a few toes when it comes to proposing cost savings for City Hall, which finds itself in an ever-deepening fiscal hole.
So when the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce and San Diego Taxpayers Association announced immediately following that report that they would no longer associate themselves with DeMaio's Performance Institute, it came as no surprise to the 29-year-old reform activist.
"It certainly did contribute," he said of Spin Cycle's report that John Kern, the mayor's chief of staff, had persuaded the chamber and the taxpayers group to distance themselves from DeMaio after he sent an e-mail to all city employees asking for their help in cutting waste in the city budget. "But this was planned all along.... This mayor and council do not like being told to cut their budget first before they go off and cut vital citizen services.
"So, I'm not surprised that they're trying to question our credibility, because they want the story to be about us and not the problems in their own management."
He said it's ironic that his opponents are picking through footnotes while declining to debate the 219 options his organization has proposed for cost savings of between $39 million and $115 million. "I'm still confident," DeMaio said, "that the people understand exactly what we're saying regardless of what the downtown elites want to say."
And as for the crack from Inzunza-a true budget-phobe-about "Cinco DeMaio" and the "Party Institute," need any more be said about his credibility? ©
Write to spincycle@SDcitybeat.com.