Inquiring minds want to know

October 05, 2012

By Marsha M. Rea

In his book Government as a Platform, Tim O’Reilly defines government this way: “Government is, at bottom, a mechanism for collective action. We band together, make laws, pay taxes, and build the institutions of governance to manage problems that are too large for us individually and whose solution is in our common interest.”  As journalist Alex Howard says: “Open Government is a Mindset.”  Government in Santa Paula was more open, collaborative and transparent in the past decade than it is today.  One wonders why the change to obscurity in decision-making has occurred, because we certainly are seeing the sad results, in a measurable decline of public interest and participation in city affairs.  Is the failure to lead with public participation and transparency caused by a lack of energy or apathy among council members and their administration?  One hopes those are the only reasons, however unacceptable, because anything else is indefensible.

Anyone who has ever started a successful business, built a house or gone on a great vacation knows that it is essential to start with a goal, and a plan for achieving it.  When was the last time the city administration engaged with residents to work out goals for the city that would determine the direction of march for decision-making?  Not since the era of the former City Manager.  

Beginning in 2002, under guidance of the previous City Manager, the City Council each year developed a list of goals that informed the public of the Council’s intent. Annual goals were developed with public input in study sessions, and were formally adopted later by the Council, prior to the development of the city’s budget each year. The annual goals came primarily from four sources: the city’s adopted plans (such as the Community Vision Plan, the Downtown Plan, and the General Plan);  from  department heads, based on their observations and needs; from direct input by the public, and from Council members. They were prominently displayed in the Council chambers and on the city’s website; they were listed in the paper; they were available as a handout at City Hall, and they were displayed at public events so that people would know what the Council was trying to accomplish over the coming year. This was not a function of overblown ego on the part of the Council; rather, it was a response to a long-held community desire for transparency in government in Santa Paula. 

The current Council has never, to the writer’s knowledge, updated the above-mentioned community driven plans; nor has it publicly adopted any new goals to guide its actions.  Consequently, it appears that decisions with far-ranging impact are being made disjointedly and piecemeal, rather than according to a well-considered strategy. Participating in the development of community goals helps the public understand the Council’s intent, which currently is unclear and can only be guessed at after decisions are made, by looking at the pattern of past actions.  Communicating a long-term plan for the city, and working to build community consensus for its implementation, should be of high importance to our elected officials.  One wonders why none of this is on the public agenda.  Is there no plan?  Or, if there is a plan, is there a political reason for it being so closely held?  An important point to be made is that when money is tight, it is increasingly important to set and work publicly toward fulfilling goals. Often a lack of money is used as a reason to forgo the goal-setting process, but that often results in the limited money available being used ineffectively.

Here are some suggestions for simple, no-cost actions our local administration might consider:  1) The city’s website should be more user friendly, and be kept organized and up to date; 2) Council Agendas should be posted earlier than the required minimum of two business days, allowing the newspaper (which is only published twice a week) time to print a summary, and address important issues to be discussed at the meeting. The Council’s agendas are not slapped together at the last moment.  The Agenda is the product of at least two weeks of staff time and deliberation. Therefore, there can be no credible reason not to post the Agenda earlier than Thursday before a Monday meeting, as is required by the letter of the law. The City Manager surely could call the local media to advise them of the hot topics that will be on the Agenda, in order for them to alert the public and for the media to prepare if necessary.  3) One should be able to click on any Agenda item posted on the City’s website to find a ready link to staff reports and related materials. Today, the agenda may not be posted until after business hours on Thursday; City Hall may be closed on Friday.  Consequently, if one wants to read a staff report, it is necessary to wait until Monday, prior to the council meeting, to have a staff report e-mailed. This situation does not give one time to read and digest the material, let alone prepare thoughtful comments for a council meeting that night.  4) Studies/Reports should be presented to Council well in advance of a meeting where a decision is going to be made and should be published on the website at that time. This would allow the public time to digest the material and give meaningful input, and 5) the time allotted for public comment on all issues: general, non-specific public comment or agenda item-based, should be 5 minutes for all speakers.

Time for the public to conduct independent research on issues before the council often seems to be necessary because many of the recent staff reports have contained insufficient information.  Too frequently the rationale for recommending a particular decision is either not provided or is not well laid out, even when outside commissioned experts recommend a different action. For example, both appraisers of the former sewer treatment plant recommended that the City retain the property to allow property values to rise; however the staff report, to which the appraisals were appended for the council to review, was silent on that issue.  Consequently there was no public consideration or discussion by the council of holding the property rather than selling it.  It seems to the writer that the decision to accept the staff recommendation was already decided prior to the meeting, which was held for the purpose of wielding the proverbial rubber stamp.

It seems to the writer that staff handles items that could or should be openly discussed by the City Council; a practice that clouds what should be a transparent deliberative process.  Staff reports should discuss how the recommended actions will address the Council’s and the City’s overall goals. For example, how does the sale of the old sewer treatment plant address the General Plan, the Economic Development Plan, the Vision Plan? Does it maximize employment? Does it eliminate a nuisance?  Does it squander a property that is a tangible asset, which could be better invested in another manner, and thereby bring a stream of ongoing revenue to the City? How does it address the Council’s adopted goals? Again, one might ask, are there goals within which this proposal fits?  Too frequently viable alternatives to staff’s recommended action are not outlined in the report, leaving one with the impression than they have either been discussed or directed privately with or by Council members and dismissed, or that Council members are accepting staff’s recommendations without question. The minimal discussions of issues held in the open at council meetings before a vote is taken often leave unanswered questions for viewers, for which there is no public recourse to seek explanation or clarification.

If the council is working to implement a vision they have for the city, it seems to be incumbent upon them to discuss it with the community.  Some say that the approach taken by the current City Manager and City Council has taken all of the fun and interest out of watching the Council meetings on television. People now say, “Nothing is happening, so why watch?” and “It seems that more time is spent making public declarations and awards, than considering serious business.”  If decisions are made before the questions reach the Council meeting, and the rationales and alternatives are poorly laid out, the opportunity for people to learn about their government is lost, and the community becomes bored with the process. Consequently fewer people know what is going on, and fewer people participate. This creates an opportunity for government to become what an increasing number of people in Santa Paula are now referring to as a government “of, by and for the Council and its cronies”, rather than “of, by and for the people”. Is that where we are headed? Are we already there?  One surely hopes not... 

At the council meeting on Monday night, the Mayor announced that an ad hoc committee of the council will conduct a public workshop tomorrow at 10:00 AM, in the Administrative Conference Room at City Hall (use the back entrance to the Administrative Office to enter) in order to discuss matters related to the ongoing water issues we have discussed in these articles.  This is certainly a good start. The writer encourages all interested residents to participate!  It is time for us to become engaged in driving the bus in which we ride or, at the very least, setting the map course toward a better future for us all. 

But enough rhetoric... What do you think? Shall we MOVE FORWARD SANTA PAULA?

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