In Closed Session

Next Tuesday night, the City Council will consider not one, not two, but three hugely controversial items.

First it's approve or deny the four-years-in-the-making Southeast Area Specific Plan (SEASP), a comprehensive land use package. The agenda item won't take four years, but I'll bet dollars to donuts the hearing will take more than two hours.

Next comes something called Claudia's Law. It is a litany of protections (or restrictions, depending on your point of view) for hotel workers who clean rooms for a living. The public comment alone could take another two hours.

Last but not least, there's a Long Beach Values Act of 2017. In essence, it would make Long Beach a sanctuary city without calling it a sanctuary city, providing undocumented immigrants with an array of protections. No controversy there, right?

Given this council, the Values Act likely will be the quickest of the three — it is the right thing for upstanding Californians to do, after all. But it has been set for a time certain of 7 p.m. The Claudia's Law item is also set for time certain at 6:30 p.m. It would appear unlikely, if not impossible, that the SEASP hearing will be done by 6:30. And here's another bet that Claudia's Law is going to take a lot longer than 30 minutes.

So who decides what the City Council talks about and takes action on? Who sets the agenda?

It's a little more complicated — and important — than you might think. You can have great ideas until the cows come home, but if you can't get it on the agenda, chances are nothing's going to happen, at least on a city level.

According to the venerable Robert's Rules of Order, the mayor has the right and responsibility for setting the agenda for any given meeting. But Long Beach City Council members long ago decided that was too much power to give to one person, and changed council policy to allow individual council members to add agenda items. They can even add items late if they can find two other council members to agree the item should be heard.

Speaking of getting other council members to sign on, it's traditional (and a good idea) to get at least one other council member to cosponsor whatever action it is you are trying to make happen. It shows that you have at least some support, and it lets the cosponsor or cosponsors talk, including telling everyone how great you are for having the idea in the first place.

The one time I saw a council member try to go it alone, the item (which was controversial) was shot down within five minutes.

On the other hand, it's pretty much the more the merrier when it comes to cosponsors. There can be no more than four sponsors on an item — it would be a Brown Act violation if there were five, guaranteeing passage. But four signees is a powerful message.

Two of the three big deals Tuesday night have a sponsor and three cosponsors. First District Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez is sponsoring both Claudia's Law and the Values Act immigrant item. Both have the same three cosponsors — Jeannine Pearce (Second District), Roberto Uranga (Seventh District) and Rex Richardson (Ninth District). They only have to sway one of the five remaining council members to get the items passed.

That's what I mean by the power to put something on the agenda.

There are a couple of other ways items get before the City Council. As mentioned, the mayor can ask the council to consider something at any time. Then there are the items brought forward (with the mayor's tacit approval) by staff members to get the city's business done. That can range from accepting a $10,000 grant to deciding to spend millions of dollars.

Most of those items, like the SEASP hearing, are required by Long Beach's rules of doing business. City Manager Pat West has to let the council know what he and his staff are doing (and give them the chance to say, "stop doing that"). It's called oversight, and it is a big deal.

Still, providing services to a city of 470,000 requires lots of little actions like that $10,000 grant that pass the threshold of council approval but are neither controversial or of truly major consequence. That's what the consent agenda is for — put all the little stuff together for one vote to move the meeting along. Items can be pulled from the consent agenda if a council member, or member of the public, decide something needs to be talked about.

Staff members are a little more aware of timing than council members (did I say a little?) and try not to stack too many big items on one agenda. However, there can be time restrictions like the SEASP appeal where something must be heard within a period of time.

So that's how agenda items appear, even if they do mean the council will still be in session at midnight.

What's on your agenda?

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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