Tue, Jul

It's Time For The City Council To Prove That It Values Public Input


LA CITY COUNCIL TO DO'S - I became concerned after reading that some city council members would like to reduce the number of days per week that they meet from three to one. 

After logging nearly 30 years as a chief of staff to a city council member, and four more years as the general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, I remember when the city council met five times during each week.

When it was proposed to reduce that requirement to three meetings per week, the arguments were (1) it would give the members more time to spend in committee meetings, and (2) it would give them more time to spend with their constituents. It's the same arguments we're hearing now.

Before there is any forward movement on the current idea, its proponents should show that these benefits were actually realized back in the day.

With an annual salary of $229,137 per year, members of the city council are not only the highest paid in the country – the next highest is Washington, D.C. at $161,233 – but they have by far the largest staffs in the country.

This makes their perceived desire to do their core work less frequently, a difficult sell. Other than attending committee meetings, the public doesn't know what they are doing during the rest of the day.

My advice for the idea's proponents is to give the public something back in return.

It's no secret that the city council has had its image tarnished by recent ethical and legal lapses by some of its members. Going back further in time before term limits, there is a fairly long list of council members who were rumored to have stumbled into legal problems, and then just mysteriously resigned mid-term, or decided not to run for what would have been an easy re-election. The need to "do better' has been there for a long time.

Whether or not the one-day-a-week meeting proposal is given life, here are some suggestions that the city council could implement to show it wants to become a national model for transparency, openness, and participatory democracy.

1. Respect the Early Warning System section of the City Charter.

The charter guarantees that neighborhood councils be given "a reasonable opportunity to provide input before decisions are made." But the far too common practice by the city council is to provide only minimum public notice required by the state's Ralph M. Brown Act.

The flaw is that the neighborhood councils must also provide the same advance notice before they can discuss and take positions on upcoming city council matters.

Very often the early warning guarantee is violated when the city council waits until the legal deadline to place a matter on an upcoming ballot before placing it on its agenda. This leaves no time for public input. An example might be a charter amendment to reduce the number of required city council meeting days.

2. Create a "Future Items" section of the city council agenda.

At the bottom of each agenda there should be a place for listing items that are being planned for possible placement on a future agenda. In this way, the public would be alerted to watch upcoming agendas for items of interest, and neighborhood councils could begin discussing them in their meetings.

3. The city council should adopt a public outreach plan. 

City Charter Section 900 explains that the primary purpose of the neighborhood council system is "To promote more citizen participation in government ...."  This too should be the goal of the city council.

4. Amend or abolish Council Rule 7. 

The rule states that the city council doesn't have to permit public testimony if comments were permitted during a committee meeting when a quorum of the committee was present.  

The problem is that when the matter appears before the full city council, you can be assured that few of the members know of the public testimony unless their staff members attended and reported the testimony. 

A committee report is prepared and sent to the city council, but they rarely, if ever, summarize the substance of the public testimony. 

This isn't a great problem for lobbyists who can meet privately with council members, but it's an unreasonable burden for the public to do the same, and it's illegal for the neighborhood councils to do it. 

5. Make better use of technology to allow more people to participate. 

This is the 21st century, but the city council continues to operate as if it was the 19th century when those wishing to have their voices heard needed to appear in person during a meeting. 

That means that those who work during the day, must be with their children, lack realistic transportation, etc. are disenfranchised. 

The city council should ask the Information Technology Agency and the neighborhood councils for suggestions, in addition to the Chief Legislative Analyst collecting best practices from other governments. 

6. Record city council attendance. 

There are really only two expectations of a city council member – pass a balanced city budget each year and show up to work on time.  

City council presidents, going back in time forever, have struggled with the problem of getting meetings started on time due to late-arriving members, and losing quorums when members exit early without a pre-approved excuse.  

Council Rules could include a requirement that members who arrive late publicly explain, for the record, the reason for their tardiness.  

Also, the time at which each member comes and goes from the Council Chamber should be recorded. Presently, a member who is present for any part of a meeting is recorded as having been present for the entire meeting. Good luck finding a business that operates that way.

7. Invite neighborhood councils to rank possible bond measure priorities.

The usual process for the development of a bond measure to be placed on the ballot is for the city council to wait until the last possible moment to direct city staff to put together the legal language to address some specific need identified by a council member. But the public is always left out of the entire process except to be asked to vote for it.

Instead, neighborhood councils could rank bond measure priorities with the assistance of city staff. Whenever the councils decide the time is right, they would ask the city council to place it on the ballot. In this way, the campaign to pass the measure would begin with the support of a large segment of the public because they designed it.

8. Change the way items are "waived" by a committee. 

It is possible for the chair of a city council committee to unilaterally pass a file to the next committee or to the full city council. That’s too much power for a committee chair. A majority of the committee members should be required to waive consideration of an item. 

9. State the reason for urgencies. 

There are legitimate reasons for ignoring the regular processes to approve a motion or enact a law, so Council Rules 16, 23, 39, and 64 provide shortcuts. But far too often these procedures are used to help friends and/or sneak an item through the process.  

Many of the shortcuts simply require 10 city council members to vote to declare that the matter is so urgent that it can’t meet and couldn’t have met the normal 72-hour posting requirement. 

One solution is to require the city council to publicly explain exactly why a matter is so urgent. Maybe it’s non-controversial and routine. Maybe it’s to help a contributor.  Just be honest. 

Such a statement should also be required whenever “placeholder” items appear on the city council agenda. This happens when the need to act quickly is so intense that the item is printed on the city council’s agenda even before the committee has acted. Sometimes the committee will have met that same morning. 

10. Explain “forthwith” actions.

Council Rule 51 allows the city council to send a matter immediately to the mayor for signature or veto without allowing time for the city council to reconsider its action at its next meeting, and without giving the public time to provide input to the mayor.  

All forthwith actions should include an explanation of the urgency.  

11. Be transparent about closed city council meetings.

The Ralph M. Brown Act allows certain matters to be discussed and voted upon in private sessions. If the city council holds a closed session to discuss anticipated litigation, the recordings should be made public after two years if no litigation is filed, when the statute of limitations passes, or when the controversy is concluded. 

After closed sessions, the city council should publicly announce which items were discussed that weren’t confidential.

If the city attorney’s representative in a closed session of the city council walks out after issuing warnings that a potential violation of the Brown Act has occurred, or is about to occur, the city attorney shall notify the public and media ASAP. I've seen this type of violation happen.

Every member’s vote on a final action should be disclosed at the end of a closed session.

12. Make it easier for the public to communicate with all city council members. 

The city council should tell the Information Technology Agency to modify the city’s website so that the public can have the ability to send the same message to all members of the city council with one action. Having to send 15 separate messages does nothing to encourage public participation.

13. Return to printing community impact statements (CIS) on agendas. 

In 2003, the community impact statement process was first adopted by the city council, the first CIS received was printed on the agendas of the city council, its committees, and city commissions. The city clerk at the time testified that it would not create an undue  burden on his office.

Years later, the Neighborhood Council Review Commission (NCRC), after two years of public hearings, praised the process, and recommended that the city council should go further by printing ALL statements on the agendas. 

However, in 2008 the city council decided that no statements appear on the agendas.

14. Twice a year, the city clerk should post on its website a list of the files pending in each committee. These lists exist so posted them wouldn't create additional work for the clerk's office. It is not uncommon for a committee chair to "bury" a file in committee and never schedule it. 

15. Reveal discretionary spending. 

City council members have access to a variety of funds used for discretionary spending by the council member. Usually, the public never knows how this money is spent unless someone files a Public Records Act request. The Office of the City Clerk should be directed by the city council to post this information on the city's website on a regular basis. 

16. Use the web pages of city council members for real communication.

All city officials are allowed to maintain an official web page using the city's internet servers with maintenance provided by city staff. The problem is that these pages are too often used as one-way propaganda tools when they should also be used for meaningful communication with constituents. They show babies being kissed, ground being broken with golden shovels, potholes by "filled" by people in business attire, and on and on. 

In return for being given this public resource, city officials need to regularly devote part of their websites to engage in real-time Q&A sessions with constituents. A third party would have to select the questions (to avoid profanity and long-winded "speechifying") and to permit follow-up questions if the answer is evasive.

The moderators could be a battery of college journalism students, perhaps with political science and public policy students. The cadre of students could be constantly refreshed as students graduate. The questions and answers would be preserved in an FAQ.

(Greg Nelson is a former chief of staff to Councilman Joel Wachs and past contributor to CityWatchLA.com.)

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