How can we have a discussion when the records aren’t accurate? How can we trust a staff that always seems to be working toward their own interests instead of the Public Interest?

20 Dec

On November 27, I mounted my 1956 Raleigh Superbe, aka “Myrtle the Turtle”, and set off through Bidwell Park at about 7:45 am to attend a Finance Committee meeting Downt0wn. By the way, I don’t ride my bike to be annoying, I ride it because it doesn’t cost any money and it pays to stay in shape these days. On a bike you can take the alternate routes that aren’t available to a car, it’s just entirely more logical. 

I don’t mind telling you though, what a pain in the ass it is to attend these meetings. Sure I enjoy the bike ride, but then what? Hours of my life have gone into these stupid meetings, hours I could have been using productively. But I feel somebody has to keep an eye on these people, give Stephanie Taber a little back-up once in a while. Stephanie attends all these dam-ned meetings, but this one she had to miss, and asked if somebody would attend. So I did.

I went to this particular meeting to ask a question that I thought was very important – How much does the city spend a year on the “employee share” of pension premiums?   Sounds simple enough. I didn’t expect to get an immediate answer, I almost expected to be put off – imagine my surprise when Jennifer Hennessy just answered me right off the top of her head: “About $7 million.” Just like that.

I was floored, not only that she’d answered me, but WOW! Seven million dollars!  That’s a lot of dough. I’ve been sitting in on these meetings for about 10 years I’d guess, listening to these reports about the city being in deficit by millions of dollars – but I think the biggest deficit figure I ever heard Hennesy project was $10 million dollars.  And here we find, $7 million of that was  just paying “the employee share” of pension premiums.

Well, as I may have told you in a previous blog, it’s not just $7 million. After being questioned about that answer by committee member Mark Sorensen, Hennessy sent me another figure via e-mail – the $7 million is just the amount that’s taken from one fund.   Remember all those nutshells Jennifer has – 60 different funds?  – well, the total she takes from all funds is more like $10 million.

I wanted to ask this question at a public meeting so there it would be, on record. That’s why I got so irritated when the minutes were made available a couple of weeks ago, and there was not one mention of that conversation. They’d actually recorded another question I’d asked, but not the one about the $7 million on “employee’s share”.  I wrote a note to Debbie Presson about it, and she told me she’d check into it. A week later, I checked the minutes again, and there was no change. So I e-mailed her again:

Hi again Debbie,

 I wonder if you’d like me to forward you the e-mail discussion I had with Mark Sorensen and Jennifer Hennessy regarding the question I asked that was omitted from the minutes of the meeting? I’m sure Scott Gruendl and Mary Flynn also heard my question and Hennessy’s answer. 
 
My question and Ms. Hennessy’s answer (answers?) need to be part of the public record. I’m just wondering, why do the minutes mention the one question I asked, but not the other?  The record needs to be complete. This is another reason people don’t participate. I rode my bike through the park to that meeting, at 7:45 in the morning, just to ask that question, and it’s important to me that the question and the answer are part of the official record. Is it a waste of my time to attend these meetings? A waste of time for the public to pay attention? 
 

I’ll be at the next Finance Committee meeting, I’d like some kind of resolution to this problem by then  – thanks, Juanita Sumner

Excuse me for being a little bitchy, but I don’t like the way they record these meetings – the entire council voted to restrict the minutes to “action only” – but still, the clerk picks and chooses which remarks she records? It’s either all or nothing, as far as I’m concerned. “Action only” would mean, the agenda item, the motion(s), and a count of the vote(s).  “Verbatim” means, every word.  But in Chico they seem to be somewhere in between. They need to make up their mind on that. As it stands, committee members and staffers can ask that remarks be stricken from the record, and that seems a little weird to me.   It’s not a  true record, it’s written the way they want it to appear. 

Here’s the response I got from Presson:

Hello Juanita.

 I have researched your questions regarding the discussions that occurred at the 11/27/12 Finance Committee Report (minutes) and found that the report does not reflect all of your comments regarding employee share of pension and benefit costs and subsequent responses by staff.  That report is currently under review and once the report is amended, we will provide the Council with the report, with a copy to you as well.  Please note, it is always our intent to provide a thorough report from these meetings.  The reports however, are typically in summary format.  Council’s formal action in 2001 was to direct staff to provide “action only” minutes, with some summary when needed.  That motion carried 7-0. 

 On a side note, but still related to this topic…. City Manager Nakamura sent you an email following that November Finance Committee meeting which included two attachments pertaining to safety and miscellaneous costs as well as an overview of the range of healthcare benefits that employees can chose from and for which they pay a share of the costs.  Would you mind confirming if you did or didn’t receive this information?  We would like to make sure he has your correct email address.

 As I had mentioned in my 12/12/12 email, your email will be included on the January 2, 2013 agenda under Reports and Communications.  At that time, I will be able to address regulations regarding the types of minutes required.  Hope that helps. 

 I wish for you and your family a wonderful holiday and will see you on January 2, 2013.

 Sincerely,

 Debbie

First question: why does it take so long to amend the report? They have a tape recording. And she could have asked Jennifer, or any of the committee members. 

Second question: I never received anything from Brian Nakamura – did he send or not? Can he use cut and paste? I’ve been in contact with several staffers, using the same e-mail address, for YEARS. I don’t know why Nakamura would have trouble contacting me. 

Third question: what is their excuse for not taking verbatim minutes? The Police Advisory Board has verbatim minutes of their casual conversations. The Willows School Board even takes verbatim minutes, and that’s in Glenn County! Why don’t we have  verbatim minutes? Why is Scott Gruendl constantly allowed to strike his comments from the minutes of meetings? 

Fourth question: who asked for my question and Hennessy’s answer to be stricken? 

Here’s the minutes of the Measure J discussion, which is where I asked my question and Hennessy answered it. It’s an interesting read alright, but it’s not complete.  As you’ll read below, they are still crying spilt milk over that $900,000 “lost” on Measure J (not to mention the election cost, of course), but not a word about the $7 – 10 million spent on the “employee’s share”.  

Discussion of Chico Measure J
Chair Gruendl began the discussion regarding the failure of Measure J, the Utility Users Tax, by asking
what this means for the City and when does the revenue loss hit the City’s budget.
City Attorney Barker stated that she will be bringing this matter forward to the full Council in December.
The City will experience some revenue loss this fiscal year. Staff will need to look at the projections, at
possible refund requests, whether to notify the carriers, and whether the tax should have been imposed
in the first place.
Chair Gruendl asked if the City may have to pay back the tax prior to the failure of Measure J if its
determined the tax shouldn’t have been imposed.
City Attorney Barker stated yes, but the City would only have to go back for one year.
Finance Director Hennessy stated the funds received from cell phone companies are being held in a fund
for possible future refunds. The funds received from companies that provide both land and cell service
aren’t segregated to show how much of the tax is from a land use or cell use.
Chair Gruendl stated that the revenue decrease is expected to be around $900,000 and the number is
expected to increase over the years due to more people dropping land lines.
City Manager Nakamura said this discussion blends in with the unfunded liabilities discussion. The City’s
budget reduction measures have included decreasing payments into certain funds, such as facilities
maintenance. The question becomes how do we continue to do that with a potential $900,000 decrease
in revenues. To put $900,000 in context, that could mean 7-8 police officers or two-thirds of operations
for the fire stations. There are significant impacts. The matter of reducing payments to other funds, such
as maintenance on facilities or Bidwell Park, has to be addressed. The City absorbed a significant amount
of the costs with the loss of the redevelopment agency. Staff is looking at renegotiating the sales tax
sharing agreement with the County and also the Cost Allocation Plan. There will be significant budget
discussions in January to address all of these concerns.

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