Always Advocating Alan – When Nothing is Happening at Santa Clarita City Council Meetings, Who is Minding the Store?
Who is minding the store at City Hall is something I have been wondering about for a very long time. Having attended almost all the Santa Clarita City Council Meetings in the last five years, I have witnessed meetings in which issues brought before the council have been discussed in great detail, and others where important issues have been discussed minimally, or not at all.
To start with, Santa Clarita is a general law city using a council-city manager form of governance. Five council members are elected to represent the public at large. They are authorized to establish the overarching policies and procedures by which the city will operate. In contrast, the city manager is responsible for the day to day management and operation of our city resources, in compliance with the roles, policies, and Procedures, delegated to him/her by the city council. In theory, this is all accomplished to satisfy the needs and oversight of the public. The Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, defines it conceptually by stating, “Local government agencies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. The people do not yield their sovereignty to the bodies that serve them. The people insist on remaining informed to retain control over the legislative bodies they have created.”
The Santa Clarita City Council went on to address their specific operational guidelines on November 2012 in Resolution 12-73: Council Norms and Procedures, which starts with Section 1: Act in the Public Interest, by stating, “Councilmember and staff should recognize that stewardship of the public interest must be their primary concern.” So, here is where the hairs go up on the back of my neck. I’m not interested in what they “should” do. I am far more interested in what they “shall” do, and how they will hold themselves accountable if a problem becomes apparent. Council and staff compliance must not be optional.
While I agree, city council meetings provide a venue for our council to do the public’s business in public, they also serve an important function in educating the public on how the city’s resources and finances are being managed. The June 12, 2018 city council meeting agenda brought forward over 400 pages of information comprised of an annual budget, an update on five categories of assessment districts, an “Annual City Fees and Charges” adjustment, update of park and public space rules and regulations, along with other miscellaneous items. Not one word of council member discussion on these items took place before Councilmember Kellar moved for recommended action, the vote was taken, and the motion was passed. Now I realize, the council’s norms and procedures indicate, “When possible, councilmembers should seek the answers to questions on an item on the agenda from the city manager prior to the meeting.” But, with such a large volume of information released to the councilmembers and the public only three working days before the meeting, with a large number of important details included, the likelihood of accomplishing coordination of the material with five councilmembers in that short amount of time is remote, at best. Providing of course, all our councilmembers were paying attention to what was presented.
Think about it. Councilmembers ask questions during city council meetings for a variety of reasons. A councilmember may want information about an item he/she is concerned about. A need for information may exist to ask for a revision of the item presented, or just raise a concern relative to the decision being voted on. Yet, of equal importance, is when a councilmember asks a question to bring information out in front of the public, so as to keep the public informed. I thought it highly improbable, with the size of what was being brought before the council, there was nothing of value to be discussed in a public venue.
So, prior to the second reading of these items on June 26, I went through the Agenda items, Staff Reports, Proposed Budget and Assessment District Engineers Reports. I found the changes to the Parks and Public Space ordinance looking like a tool to harass the homeless and wrote an article about it two weeks ago. I found a Capital Improvement project with costs escalating substantially and a lack of transparency in the way two of the Drainage Assessment District finances were being presented. I brought up these two budgetary issues during the appropriate agenda item public comment period and expressed my concern with the council’s lack of discussion. Well, that did not get me any new answers to my questions. Instead, Councilmember Smyth decided to give me a lecture for implying he had not prepared for the meeting. So much for the Council’s Code of Conduct where “Councilmembers should treat everyone with courtesy.” Councilmember Smyth could have just proved me wrong by answering my questions, but he did not.
It is frustrating how councilmembers always get the last word at city council meetings, but here in the Gazette, those roles are reversed. I remember the Brown Act says, “The people insist on remaining informed to retain control over the legislative bodies they have created.” Therefore, I will unequivocally state, “I intend to continue asking hard questions at city council meetings and writing about them.” No amount of Councilmember Smyth’s lectures will deter me from the path of determining “Who is Minding the Store” at City Hall – and outing who is not.