Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Happenings: Ideological Weirdness, Pulskamp's Not-Quite-Last Meeting

The three eldest members of the Santa Clarita City Council were upset by one concept in particular this evening: free speech protection for video presentations[1].  While Frank Ferry was merely annoyed by the thought of video presentations, and Boydston is quite a fan of them, Weste challenged the City Attorney on whether the law did, indeed, require allowing council members to express themselves via PowerPoint and video if they wished.  The meeting was, as a whole, annoying.  It was long, gave me little confidence in how some grasp the idea of free speech, and despite lasting over three hours, it felt as if very little of importance was accomplished.  Who wouldn’t want to read more after that?

Blather, Blather, Everywhere

Mayor Frank Ferry delivered the invocation, suggesting that we spend Thanksgiving with our families.  He concluded with a prayer. 

After presentations for breast cancer and domestic violence awareness months, there were photos, brief speeches, and an interesting suggestion by Ferry.  “Husbands: there’s nothing more loving or cherishing you can do than make a breast cancer appointment”—for their wives, that is.  In future meetings, perhaps Ferry will clarify whether wives ought to reciprocate by scheduling prostate exams for their husbands. 

The Ferry Show continued with a speech in praise of State Senator Sharon Runner.  Runner, who will be leaving the senate shortly, was recognized for her public service, leadership, and values.  She did not choose to run for reelection after her double lung transplant surgery, after which she said she’s just starting to feel like herself again.  She looked well, spoke confidently and graciously, and was wished well by all.

Public Participation came next.  A woman from Canyon Country spoke about code enforcement and the meddling neighbors who report violations.  She has a 23-foot long truck—in Canyon Country, who doesn’t?—that she parks on a slab in her yard.  She mentioned her frustrations over inconsistent vehicle parking enforcement, questionable cause for a citation, and being singled out.  Cam Noltemeyer made her presence known (she mentioned being overseas in past weeks) as she spoke about her continued dismay over a horse-race wagering facility.  More interestingly, she asked why there was no list of 2012 lobbyists published online; recall that all paid lobbyists who speak before the City Council are required to register.  Lynne Plambeck decided to do something fun this evening, kindly giving the City original newspaper coverage of the birth of the City of Santa Clarita on December 15, 1987. 

Council member updates followed.  As usual, the various members mentioned sundry events and causes to support, all of them worthwhile and worthy but quickly forgotten as yet more events and more causes were mentioned, jockeying for position in event-saturated schedules.     


To What Do We Consent?
The consent calendar’s primary purpose, this evening, was providing Cam Noltemeyer with ample opportunity to make comments.

On an item moving Assistant City Manager Ken Striplin’s transition to City Manger from January 1, 2013 to December 1, 2012, Noltemeyer wondered about Striplin’s “executive benefits” and whether the City Council received comparable benefits.  (City Manager Ken Pulskamp responded that only the city manager, assistant city manager, and department heads receive executive benfits; council members do not).

There was some property shuffling in the wake of the end of Newhall redevelopment, about which Noltemeyer wondered whether property transfers and such were really fiscally neutral.

Item 7 awarded a construction contract for a park-and-ride near McBean Parkway and Valencia Boulevard.  The plants and animals living in the location will be displaced for a great paved expanse where commuters can park their cars.  Bike lockers, bus bays, and more of the painfully homespun public art that already litters the City are also planned.  Noltemeyer was upset about the unsavory elements this transit hub might attract, but Pulskamp noted there would be active patrolling of the center and no overnight parking. 

Finally, an item concerning landscape maintenance districts attracted Cam’s critical gaze.  She inquired about the 10% contingency that always seems to go along with bids and why the same company tends to win all the landscaping contracts.  TimBen Boydston requested a review of the landscape company’s performance in two years. 

The agenda was approved by all members of the council.  Before moving onto new and unfinished business, however, Mayor Ferry asked Pulskamp to double-check whether the lack of registered lobbyists was legitimate or if there had been some kind of oversight.  This was his shout-out to Cam Noltemeyer, he made known. 

A Million Reasons to Annex Copperhill

Copperhill will be joining the Claritan fold sooner rather than later.

Time is of the essence because, unless annexed by December 1, the City would not receive a $1.3M transfer of tax revenue after annexing Copperhill.  It would still be obligated to provide residents with services, but there would be no collection of tax revenue until 2014.  To prepare for annexation, there has been a long sequence of mapping, formal agreements, public hearings, and so on.  Tonight’s pre-annexation was the next step on the list.  If all goes according to plan—which it likely will, as no one expressed opposition—then Copperhill and its 10,000 or so residents may be joining the City before year’s end. 

Should, Shall, Will
or, Free Speech 101

After all of his talking, Mayor Ferry’s voice was growing hoarse, and he asked for a throat lozenge (excuse me, “lozenger”), which a member of the audience gladly supplied.

He had more talking to do as he fielded public and council member comments about the norms he and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar had recently revised.  The public spoke first, by which I mean Cam Noltemeyer and Diane Trautman.  Both responded to the fact that rules based on common courtesy had been re-phrased to suggest, rather than compel, compliance (i.e., most actions went from “will”s and “shall”s to “should”s and “may”s).  Noltemeyer though the language should be stronger, hoping it would “make this a city council that is transparent, that really does its business in public.”  Trautman felt the opposite.  She applauded the move from norms written as “directives” to norms written as “recommendations.”  She suggested that they add a norm pertaining to interaction with outside public agencies, but the council was not responsive.     

Both councilmembers Marsha McLean and TimBen Boydston had an exhausting list of tweaks to suggest, most of them changing the word preceding a recommended action.  Some were minorly substantive.  For example, McLean asked to revise a norm stating that all contact with the city attorney should be shared, and Boydston asked about changing the procedure for decision reconsiderations.  But in the end, as Ferry and Kellar would both suggest, the non-binding norms really rely on the willingness of council members to use common sense and to be polite and respectful in order to work. 

This point, and the Constitution, were forgotten during discussion of video presentations.  There was question about whether videos should be sent out ahead of time (they can be, but there can’t be responses, per the Brown Act) and, more importantly, whether they should be allowed at all.  Councilmember McLean made an argument that videos can be edited selectively to manipulate an audience or convey a false impression of events.  She did not consider words could do the same thing, so she suggested that speech (literally, talking) be protected and allowed, but videos not be.  She would call the possibility of videos presentations “dangerous” more than once.
Councilmember Laurene Weste shared McLean’s concerns.  She worried that there would be five videos per item, and was inclined to keep presentations strictly verbal.  Bob Kellar stepped up to support Weste, noting that was the way things had been done, and that things were working.  Boydston, Ferry and Montes would all gently hint at the changing nature of technology, but McLean, Weste, and Kellar thought there was a clear distinction between a spoken and video-based presentations, feeling that the latter was disruptive and suited for banning. 

City Attorney Joe Montes spoke up.  He explained that freedoms of expression afforded the council and others were to be interpreted broadly.  He recommended limiting the duration of video presentations rather than banning them outright, since the council clearly wanted some form of regulation.

Laurene Weste made repeated efforts to challenge Montes’ interpretation of the law.  She was perplexed that videos ought to be allowed while not everyone was given the same amount of time to speak, etc.  Montes assured Weste of his interpretation, but Weste asked, “How do you know that until you go study the law?”  It was asked cheerfully, but Weste was implying that Montes didn’t know what he was talking about.

After a very long discussion, it was decided that video presentations will be allowed at council meetings.  However, they must be under 5 minutes, and copies must be sent out prior to the meeting at which they’ll be shown.  Ferry explained that seeing it advance would be helpful.  “I don’t wanna blow up, so give me some emotional time,” he requested, to mentally process videos before they were shown.  

TimBenefits, Again

Alan Ferdman was right.  He’s the member of the public that was referenced in the agenda item covering reconsideration of a two-tier cash-in-lieu benefits program: “During the course of the October 23, 2012, City Council meeting, some members of the public expressed concern that the City Council in 2010 did not formally approve the cash in lieu two-tier benefit for unrepresented employees and Councilmembers at an open Council meeting as required by Government Code section 54957.6. A review of the resolution adopted by the Council on December 14, 2010, confirms that while other benefits were described in the resolution, the reduction in the cash in lieu benefit was not.”

This was a little embarrassing to be addressing so far after the fact, and it was clear that City Attorney Joe Montes wanted to get this item settled quickly.  Speaking before a council of four—TimBen Boydston had to recuse himself as the item affected his compensation—Montes said that a resolution to “clarify the intent” to have a two-tier cash-in-lieu system would set things straight.  If the council did not follow this action, then benefits for Boydston and all employees hired since 2011 (over 30 of them) would have to be changed in the same way. 

Boydston, speaking as an individual, raised many points which he felt compelled the city council to award equal benefits to all.  To my non-legally-trained ears, they sounded solid. He ended with what, read out of context, sounded like a legal threat, suggesting that the City would be at risk if he didn’t receive the same benefits as his fellow council members.  But he said it more passively than threateningly, so who knows if he'll follow through? 

Cam Noltemeyer and Diane Trautman spoke largely in support of Boydston.  Trautman was particularly perplexed by City Attorney Joe Montes's invocation and confusing interpretation of adherence to the Brown Act in this case.  Montes would offer counter-arguments to all of Boydston’s points that McLean asked be written down to allow her further analysis.  As mentioned, his responses on this topic were quite quick and concise, but all seemed to support the legality of the recommended action over Boydston's own legal arguments.  Again, without familiarity on the law surrounding benefits, Brown Act, and limitations, it wasn't particularly easy to follow to back-and-forth.    

In the end, there wasn't much left to be said about Boydston receiving hundreds less per month in health insurance cash-in-lieu.  Ferry wondered about whether they were being left open to a lawsuit, but Montes recommended that the City proceed with formalizing the two-tier benefit system.  Kellar, who has displayed little sympathy for Boydston’s complaints about receiving $800 less per month in cash-in-lieu than his fellow members, moved the recommended action. McLean gave a resigned yes, but everyone else seemed less troubled in their affirmation of Boydston’s lower benefit exchange and moved on.

A Bad Idea

Few ideas are unambiguously bad, but Boydston’s suggestion for distribution of the City Council agenda two weeks in advance seemed to have very, very little going for it.  He thought the public and council would benefit from more time to review items prior to meetings, but he was reminded that such an early release would increase response times, delay projects, cause a heavy workload on staff, potentially confuse the public, lengthen the time it takes to agendize items, and so on. 

Out of 10 other cities investigated, none released an agenda more than 6 days in advance of a meeting.  Santa Clarita does it 5 days in advance.  Boydston unseuccessfully tried to change it to 6 days, but Mayor Ferry asked “Why is more [time to review] better?”  With little additional discussion, all but Boydston voted to keep the same agenda distribution schedule. 

With that, the meeting ended.  There’s only one more meeting left where Ken Pulskamp will be the City Manager, so the late November meeting will likely be a big one.  Stand warned.

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