Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
It’s been a long, patience-testing pandemic for most as restrictions implemented due to COVID-19 severely limited the day-to-day activities of New Mexicans over the past year.
But, for those who regularly attend meetings of the Santa Fe City Council, it might have felt even longer – because it has.
In fact, Santa Fe City Council meetings, which have notoriously run late for years, have gotten even longer since the pandemic forced such meetings to a virtual format, raising concerns about residents’ ability to participate.
The Journal analyzed the lengths of the past 82 Santa Fe City Council meetings – 41 pre-pandemic in-person meetings and 41 conducted virtually – and found the median length of virtual meetings is around 4 hours, 50 minutes.
That’s around 1 hour longer compared to in-person meetings, a 28% increase.
Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, said that, for many other governing bodies, the pandemic has not increased meeting lengths.
“Their meetings have consistently run late into the night,” she said. “It’s moderately surprising that they’re going up.”
And the length of some meetings has been staggering. Nine of the 10 longest meetings during that period took place virtually, each averaging around 7½ hours.
On several occasions, the council has had to suspend procedural rules since the body is not allowed to continue discussion past 11:30 p.m.
Councilor Chris Rivera, the body’s longest-serving member, said virtual meetings have been a difficult adjustment. As someone who has sat through hundreds of meetings, Rivera now finds it hard to remain as focused on discussion as he was before COVID-19.
“I’ll find myself kind of daydreaming at times and have to kind of force myself back into it,” he said. “Staring at a screen for so long, it can be pretty difficult.”
It’s an issue the city has tried to address. Councilors passed a resolution in August 2020 to start meetings an hour earlier, so city officials wouldn’t have to discuss agenda items late into the night.
Councilor Rene Villarreal sponsored the resolution and said at the time that meetings had gotten much longer since the pandemic and the city needed to adjust.
“We have never adjusted to how COVID has affected our meetings and being virtual,” Villarreal said.
However, the data suggests an earlier start time might be having the opposite effect. Of the 10 longest meetings, eight took place after the new start time was implemented.
Mayor Alan Webber, who chairs all council meetings, said it’s clear that earlier meetings haven’t solved the problem.
“I don’t think anybody on the council would say that’s worked out the way it was intended,” Webber said.
An obvious question remains – have long virtual meetings impacted public participation for better or worse?
Analytics from the city’s YouTube channel, where meetings are broadcast, might give some idea. For nine of the most recent meetings, viewers usually watched 6-8% of the entire meeting, according to figures obtained by the Journal.
Currently, residents are able to speak publicly at meetings via Zoom and usually have to sign up beforehand. However, Rivera believes public participation is way down from where it typically is.
“Even the meetings where you have great turnout, I think, in normal face-to-face sessions, the numbers would have been much higher,” he said.
Ferguson said that, compared to other communities, Santa Fe’s council has a greater degree of public participation, which can often make meetings longer.
“I see a community that is incredibly engaged at every meeting,” she said.
Webber said it could also be the length of some agendas, with many having dozens of items to work through.
It has been a year filled with several controversial issues at the city level. Land use cases, employee furloughs, budget meetings and short-term rentals are just some of the issues that have had councilors debating for multiple hours.
Councilors have recently discussed having some in-person or hybrid meetings as virus cases plateau across the state.
But it seems there is no obvious solution to the long meetings in sight.
Webber said the council could decide to limit the time each councilor has to question or comment on an issue. But he noted there are some aspects of a city council meeting you can’t recreate virtually.
“There’s a greater sense of interpersonal connection that comes from just being in the same room,” he said.