Blogging Bayport Alameda

August 6, 2015

Talk amongst yourselves

Filed under: Alameda, City Council — Lauren Do @ 6:06 am

The Open Government Commission typically doesn’t get called on to meet unless there is a specific complaint that has been filed. The current Open Government Commission (made up of one pick per City Council member) met a lot initially to make all sorts of minor changes to the Sunshine Ordinance that took lots of back and forth discussion from essentially two members.

But here, found on another blog, is the Mayor’s appointed gatekeeper of the Sunshine Ordinance (which is a bulked up Brown Act for all intents and purposes) saying that he feels constrained by the Brown Act not allowing Alameda’s legislative body to talk and come to a decision on issues before they sit on the dais and take a vote.

I have to say, I had to read this multiple times to see if I understood exactly what this Commissioner was saying:

I am the Vice-Chairperson of the City of Alameda Open Government Commission that is charged with monitoring the Brown Act and the City’s Sunshine Ordinance.
The opinion expressed below is my own and not an expression of the Commission.

I have been active in communicating with City Council members for the past year and a half and have felt very constrained in trying to buld a consensus because of the the inability of more than two members to discuss an issue. How the legislature can impose such a draconian limitation on local officials while exempting themslves from the same requirements defies any logical explanation. There should be no restriction on any number of council members meeting informally to discuss any matter or even to propose specific legislation and work out the languqge before it reaches the public meeting stage, so long as the the final vote is taken in public after the required prior notice of presentation and public input.

The current system has Councilmembers acting as islands, rather than intelligent candidly interacting human beings. I fully agree with you that it leads to Council being dependent on staff who have no retriction whatsoever on their discourse with eachother. It also leads to interminably long council meetings where language is developed on the fly in the course of the meeting. The late night meetings are much more damaging to the notion of transparency than unlimited private discourse between council members.

This is the intent of the Brown Act:

“In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards, and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”

I mean, it doesn’t get any plainer than that right?  The actions taken openly and deliberations conducted openly.  Unless we’re all invited to coffee with the two Councilmembers and it’s televised and noticed properly and then the discussion with the third Councilmember at the Farmer’s Market is televised and noticed properly then deliberations are not “conducted openly.”  Because doing what is described above is explicitly disallowed by the Brown Act and it’s called a serial meeting.

It’s one thing to sit and talk about how Joe Blow is whining about all the leaves the fall on his sidewalk during the fall season and one Councilmember wants to talk about that and then tells a third Council person the same story and how they should do something about it, but the Mayor’s appointee to the OPEN GOVERNMENT COMMISSION believes there:

should be no restriction on any number of council members meeting informally to discuss any matter or even to propose specific legislation and work out the languqge before it reaches the public meeting stage, so long as the the final vote is taken in public after the required prior notice of presentation and public input.

And believes that televised and taped public meetings:

much more damaging to the notion of transparency than unlimited private discourse between council members.

Can someone explain this to me?  At the very least the public can review the tape of a late night meeting.  The public, however, has zero recourse when City Council members chat among themselves over the phone or over coffee.  I think it may be time for the Mayor to select someone who — at the very least — understands the significance and importance of the Sunshine Ordinance and — more broadly — the Brown Act.  After all, if there is an allegation of a violation it will come before that body to adjudicate and this Commissioner has made it clear that he holds nothing but disdain for one of the key components of the Brown Act, that is the public right to understand the actions and deliberations that lead up to the policies that are voted on by their elected officials.

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11 Comments

  1. “There should be no restriction on any number of council members meeting informally to discuss any matter or even to propose specific legislation and work out the language before it reaches the public meeting stage, so long as the final vote is taken in public after the required prior notice of presentation and public input”

    Excuse me, but this is the definition of ‘back room politics”.

    So the prior administration couldn’t be trusted — even with the most — what does he call it “the most draconian limitation on local officials” in place?

    But now that we have a new administration in place, “back room politics” is suddenly acceptable – according to the Vice-Chairperson of the City of Alameda Open Government Commission.

    Comment by Karen Bey — August 6, 2015 @ 7:12 am

  2. While he is off base generally, he does have a point about staff controlling so much city business without interaction from the public. That is really frustrating and is by no measure “good government,” but repealing the Brown Act isn’t the answer.

    Comment by dave — August 6, 2015 @ 7:19 am

  3. 3. we should fire staff, which would solve the problem of their meddling and save a lot of cash. Volunteers appointed by the mayor, like Eugenie Thomson can do the job.

    Comment by MI — August 6, 2015 @ 8:00 am

  4. Dave, staff can’t do anything without the support of the Mayor and the City Council. The desire to change the Sunshine Ordinance rules comes from the Vice-Chairperson of the City of Alameda Open Government Commission who believes this:

    “I am in strong disagreement with Mayor Marie Gilmore and Councilmember Stewart Chen, who have adopted the mantra, “Alameda is an on-ramp to 880.”

    That’s what this is really about.

    Comment by Karen Bey — August 6, 2015 @ 8:04 am

  5. I know eiyh certainty now I haven’t the strength of will or personal stamina to play in the political arena. As Emily Litella said, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another”.

    Comment by Gabrielle Dolphin — August 6, 2015 @ 9:24 am

  6. Spencer and her supporters have been leaking information to each other from closed sessions. When they are admonished for their illegal actions, they want to change the law. There is no leakage when communications between council members are open and public. Spencer is a follower and not a leader. I doubt her supporters’ desire to repeal the Brown Act to enable backroom politicking will help her get a majority vote on the council. She is clueless.

    Comment by Alan — August 6, 2015 @ 10:43 am

  7. Staff making too many decisions in a blind? Two solutions to that. The City Manager serves at the pleasure of the Council. Fire his/her ass if he/she is overstepping his/her authority. Second, if the Council doesn’t like an initiative crafted and pushed by Staff, can they not just vote Nay on it when it comes before them? All politics is dirty I guess, and the Vice Chair’s suggestion as noted above is just the latest example of how dirty politics even in a small backwater like Alameda can be. How absolutely ludicrous to think that the answer to open and transparent governance is less open and transparent deliberations? Geesh, what are these people smoking?

    Comment by Not. A. Alamedan — August 6, 2015 @ 11:49 am

  8. Well, this Vice Chair only moved to California after he retired. He’s from Pittsburg, PA. Maybe he isn’t up to speed on the need for transparency yet.

    Comment by vigi — August 6, 2015 @ 11:53 am

  9. If Paul Foreman does not adequately understand either the laws of California–including the Brown Act and the Public Records Act–then he has no business serving on the Open Government Commission, whose work is based on those well-established laws.

    Perhaps he should go back to having coffee with Mayor Spencer and making city decisions there if he wants to “…propose specific legislation and work out the languqge before it reaches the public meeting stage, so long as the the final vote is taken in public after the required prior notice of presentation and public input.”

    I am appalled by Foreman’s foolish proposal, which ignores the long and sad history of backroom politics in US history, from Tammany Hall to scandal-riddled San Francisco. (There is no geographic excuse to such ignorance.)

    There is, in fact, a well-established format available in which the City Council–or the Open Government Commission–can speak less formally and involve the public–public workshops on significant issues. These have been held regarding prospective AP developers and developments, Measure A (City Charter section XXVI), and other “big” topics with very good results.

    We need competent people on all of our boards and commissions, not just our City Council. I hope Mayor Spencer will do far better in her upcoming appointments than Paul Foreman’s letter indicates that she has done in the past.

    Comment by Jon Spangler — August 6, 2015 @ 12:43 pm

  10. The simple answer is the Council makes policy and the staff is hired to carry it out under the supervision and direction of the City Manager. This includes the research and presentation of the pros and cons of items the Council wishes to consider. It also incudes the day to day administration of all the City Services. It is not, under our form of local government, the Council’s job to do the day to day work, nor is it the role of the staff to set the overall policies of the City. If the Council feels the staff is usurping its role it can request change via the City Manager who is paid to oversee the staff and give guidance to the Council on its options for action. The City Attorney also has a role in guidance as well (playing by the rules).
    The Brown Act has broken up the ability of council members to get together in back rooms and decide stuff away from public scrutiny. In its closed sessions, it may only discuss matters related to contracts, lawsuits and personnel and even then, has to tell the public what topics it discussed. As residents and taxpayers we are all better off knowing that secret backroom deals are not being made and that we are able to hear what each council member thinks in open deliberations,, so we can hold them to account for their actions.

    Comment by Kate Quick — August 6, 2015 @ 1:26 pm

  11. Hear, hear Kate!
    The ability to stay focused on policy is a skill which our elected and appointed officials needs to practice and hone. Working to understand the points of view of others on boards help create an atmosphere that allows discussion and deliberation … Something that is easier said than done.

    Comment by Ron Mooney — August 6, 2015 @ 5:16 pm


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