Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Happenings: Norms, Chills, Contracts


Everyone was feeling a little chilly at tonight’s city council meeting[1].  Claritans of consequence arrived in force to speak against revisions to council norms they deemed “chilling”.  The proposed revisions would arguably change the nature of communications, council-manager dynamics, and meeting policies in ways many found troubling.  Mayor Ferry’s response to naysayers was, in a word, chill.  He wanted people to calm down while he explained that the changes he and Mayor Pro Tem Kellar crafted were wide open for revision.  As more than one person said tonight, words matter—especially those words that define the rules and norms by which the council governs.

Councilmember TimBen Boydston delivered the invocation.  He responded to a speaker from last week who was dismayed that the phrase “In God We Trust” appears in the council chambers.  Boydston read the US Congress’s 2011 re-affirmation of “In God We Trust” as the national motto and made a generally rousing speech culminating in the pledge of allegiance.    

Next came a proclamation for the 10th Rubber Ducky Regatta to benefit the Samuel Dixon Family Health Center.  A woman in a duck suit sat in the audience and posed for a picture, to the delight of all, I venture.  We were reminded of the center’s work to provide medical services for the un- and under-insured. 

Lousy Courts, Unsavory Wagers

In the first round of public participation, Thomas Graney was upset by the injustice of the SCV’s justice system.  He described an awful judge, having to drive from the SC Valley to the SF Valley for routine services, and the hassle of going over the hill for jury duty.  The other public speaker was Cam Noltemeyer, who was dismayed by the off-track horse wagering now taking place in Santa Clarita.  She wondered why such an undesirable business hadn’t been stopped or at least discussed by the City Council.  Assistant City Manager Ken Striplin said the State of California was in control of both courts and wagering, so there was little he could do to appease either comment-maker.  Councilmember Marsha McLean, who said that Santa Clarita is “totally underserved by the courts,” asked that a letter be written explaining situation.  As for horse racing, Striplin said that since there was no opposition voiced to a wagering center (technically, the one opposing party removed their objections), the development was allowed to go forward without appearing on a council agenda.

With these matters addressed, the council members made their generally bland comments applauding or previewing community events.    

Supporting Materials

The consent calendar was slight, comprising just six items.  One of these items was a contract for landscape maintenance services—not usually a cause for alarm.  But Councilmember Boydston asked to continue the item to a subsequent meeting because he had not been given enough time to read the contract on which he would be voting.  This is the third times he’s called out staff for failing to get him contracts and other supporting materials in a timely fashion.  Mayor Ferry asked Striplin whether the landscape contract was pressing, and Striplin agreed it could be carried on to the next meeting without problem, satisfying Boydston.  Cam Noltemeyer was also leery of this item, but for a different reason: she asked if those providing landscaping services are required to use E-Verify to determine whether their employees can legally work in the US.  Apparently, they are not required.   

Council Norms

Proposed revisions to city council norms and procedures were contentious.  The Signal’s well-composed editorial on these revisions was on everyone’s mind (especially its use of the word “chilling”), and it makes for useful background reading[2].  The piece really focused tonight’s discussion on the council/manager relationship, responsibilities pertaining to council communications, and majority rule.  For example, council members would be asked to report any interviews or statements they made to the manager, they would be asked to submit questions to the city manager before asking them at a meeting, and they would need assent from other members to put items on the agenda or make special presentations involving video clips.

Mayor Ferry introduced the item with a series of defensive statements.  He assured the audience that, despite allegations to the contrary, the changes to norms were not about stifling free speech: “This is never to squelch any given member.”  He didn’t like the idea that changes had been labeled “unconstitutional,” and promised that he was open to changes.  He asked people to keep that in mind “before you come up here with the torches and the pitchforks.”

Despite the plea, people still brought pitchforks.

One public speaker looked at City Attorney Joe Montes and insulted him while maintaining good eye contact, saying, “If you’re the one that wrote this up, I think you should go back to law school.”  Navy veteran Darryl Manzer was upset as he revealed, “I’m trying to remember what I served for.”  Apart from the new norms, he was also quite unhappy that Mayor Ferry pronounced his name improperly (man-ZEHR vs. MAN-zuhr).  “Don’t put a French inflection on it: my Dutch ancestors wouldn’t like it,” said Manzer, who would also state the pronunciation of Castaic as properly being “cah-STAKE”, never  “cah-STAY-ik.” 

Other speakers made more succinct and useful comments.  Lori Rivas employed a parallel structure to ask, “Who is being served when…”, then running through a list of questionable changes of little apparent benefit to the public.  Former mayor Carl Boyer said that he thought questions should be allowed whether submitted prior to the meeting or not.  He clarified that norms are not binding but rather guidelines, and suggested voters will take care of council members they feel shirk the norms.  He said that’s what Jill Klajic did, which led to her political losses: “She did herself in.”  Ray Kutylo was frustrated as he exclaimed, “All I can say is: what were you thinking!?”  Kutylo speculated that staff had initiated many of the changes.  Dianne Trautman was the last speaker (and the third or fourth to call the proposal “chilling”), and she summarized concerns about shifts of power to the mayor and manager.  Individual power was simultaneously diminished with new requirements to add an agenda item, give a presentation, or talk to the press without reporting to the manager.

All the council members agreed the item needed work.  Ferry did a fair bit of back-peddling, saying that the spirit or intention of some rules didn’t come through in the language they selected.  For example, the item about submitting questions prior to asking them at meetings was intended to allow the city manager to prepare for questions that might require specific information—it was not meant to silence spontaneous questions that arise during the course of a meeting.  He would not back down from some points, however.  Both Ferry and McLean were worried that Boydston might try to show a video with unfair or unflattering editing to make a point, which is why they defended a rule to ask for approval before showing a video clip during a meeting. 

Ferry also challenged Boydston about reporting media conversations to Gail Ortiz or Ken Pulskamp/Striplin.  Ferry said it was responsible, while Boydston thought having to report his near daily conversations with media outlets would be onerous and threaten his free speech.  For both this debate and the debate over adding items to the agenda, Boydston argued that council members have common sense. That is, they wouldn’t make wild or speculative statements to the press without telling others, and they wouldn’t abuse the ability to agendize items.  Ferry had a worst-case scenario mindset, though.  He worried about being “blind-sided” by quotes from fellow council members and asked what would stop members from putting hundreds of items on the agenda every week if they could.        

Unsurprisingly, no solution was reached, and the norm revisions will be worked on some more.

[1]A link to the agenda, just for you. 
[2]The editorial

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think Frank Ferry is such a hypocrite on this issue - supported by the fact that he sent a letter to Kevin Korenthal's employeer on City letterhead indicating that Mr. Korenthal had insulted the City.

Talk about "blindsiding"!

While that kind of bad behavior would still apparently be allowed, the ability for another councilmember to agendize something would not be. And the fact that the Mayoral position is not being voted upon by other than the Councilmembers does not ensure fair play here since the sitting Mayor and City Manager would control the agenda.