The fist puppets Downtown – manipulated from behind closed doors

21 Sep

Our town is broken, anarchy reigns. I used to think it might be fun to be an anarchist, but this really sucks.

I don’t know if you ever read Woody Allen’s short essay “A Brief Yet Helpful Guide to Civil Disobedience.” Allen discusses various tactics to annoy the shit out of government.  I know this may sound like a ripping good time, but I frankly prefer accomplishing something more practical. 

For years a lot of us have worked for more transparency in our city government. Not just because we’re nosy control freaks, but because we know, when you allow something to fester and rot behind a curtain you will certainly be left cleaning up a big mess when that curtain finally falls.

For a while, thanks in part to former councilor Larry Wahl,  the city website was usable by citizens who wanted to keep tabs but can’t walk away from their job or household responsibilities to go to these run-away meetings.  The committee meetings are shorter and better run, but held during most people’s work day. The council meetings are onerous – poorly agendized, time thrown out the door on stupid proclamations, trendy theology and off-topic chatter that goes out the door and around the block.  These meetings are more of a circus, a performance event, everything is scripted ahead of time.  Council all know how they will vote, they’re privvy to reports and communications from staff that we don’t get.  This stuff used to be more available on the website, for anybody, but lately it’s been hard to get anything out of staff, and more stuff is being taken behind closed doors, via memos and reports that the public never sees. 

Here’s an interesting story from Mary over at Truth Matters Chico:

http://truthmatterschico.com/2013/09/20/minutes-edited-to-cover-nakamuras-snow-job/

There she describes a report that was handed to council and some hard copies made available to the public, but none of it was recorded in the minutes or read into the video. It was never made available or mentioned on the website. This indicates to me that plenty of stuff goes on Downtown almost completely out of the public oversight. You have to be a fulltime council watcher to keep up with this stuff, and they know nobody can do that, not even Stephanie Taber. 

I attended the August Economic Development committee meeting, during which there was a discussion regarding future agendizing and scheduling of meetings for that committee.  Brian Nakamura has suggested dumping that committee a couple of times now because he says he doesn’t have enough staff to cover it. Shawn Tillman has supposedly been taking notes, but there’s no reports available on the website. Last meeting, they decided, I  thought, to change the schedule to include regular committee meetings, meetings at which the committee could “act” on various agenda items (make recommendations to staff or council), in alternative months, and then in between these meetings they would have what they called “listening meetings” with various local businesses. The “listening meetings” were to take place at various businesses around town. 

I told them the “listening meetings” sounded like opportunities for the business community to lobby the council, and that would be really inappropriate if the public were not included. They all agreed. The committee – Gruendl, Sorensen and Morgan – as well as Katie Simmons from Chico Chamber of Commerce and Audrey Taylor of Chabin Concepts (gets CBGF money) all acknowledged the Brown Act and the rules governing their activities as a committee. But I don’t believe they were sincere. Shawn Tillman, the staffer attached to the committee, said later he didn’t think it would be necessary to notice the “listening meetings” to the public, and frankly, if I hadn’t been there, I think that would have been the end of it.  I spoke up right away and said that would NOT be okay, that they needed to notice the same list of people who’d signed up to be noticed for the “regular” meetings. Tillman repeated what I said as though he was just told to eat a bowl of his own poop. Gruendl and the rest of the committee gave their lackluster affirmative.

They said the first “regular” meeting would be this month, on schedule, but just the other day I got the cancellation. They’d also said at the last meeting that the retail survey the city sponsored in part would be introduced at the October “listening meeting,” which was quickly metamorphosing into a series of workshops for Downtown businesses. I wondered, how will the public be included in that? Sounds like a Chamber event. But Katie Simmons made it clear that she’d be announcing that survey publicly, and the public would be welcome. She wouldn’t give me the details, she was pretty stubborn about that. 

Because they don’t want the public in those workshops, Dummass! At an earlier meeting, Tillman gleefully explained that the survey was going to show them “we’re not taking full advantage of the student population…” Wow, don’t be afraid to offend anybody Shawn, just blurt it out! Take advantage? As the mother of two college age people, I had to do a double take there.  And, it offended me as a consumer – here my city just used my tax dollars to help DOWNTOWN businesses find out how to better take advantage of my  college age kid, not to mention, my whole family. 

When I got the notice of cancellation for this month’s meeting last week, I replied to Tillman, including Gruendl and Sorensen, reminding them I’d asked to be noticed of all events scheduled for this committee, including the “listening meetings.” I also asked about the retail survey and whether the workshops would be open to the public. I didn’t get any response for two days, so I re-sent. This time I got an auto response from Tillman – he was out three days last week, won’t be back til Monday.  And, I got  this response from Gruendl. 

“The presentation of the retail market study will be at the October 15 city Council meeting at 6:30 PM. Instead of a September economic development committee meeting there will be an economic development committee meeting on its regular day in October on the fourth Wednesday at the regular time. “

Sure, they’d noticed me about the September meeting being cancelled, but when did they change their minds about the “listening” meeting in October? I’m assuming this was done in a discussion behind closed doors or on the phone or via e-mail with Katie Simmons.  And now we’ll see the survey, I guess, but we won’t be invited in on the Chamber activities.  

Simmons made a point to say, several times at the August meeting, that she’d be including the public in more of these business meetings that she schedules regularly with members of city staff and council. If you watch the Chamber website, you’ll see, these events are open to the public, at a charge, averaging $20 a pop. Or, you can just force your way in to the free business luncheons that she schedules over at the old Muni building. She can’t really say no if there’s a member of staff or a council member involved. Brian Nakamura speaks regularly at these meetings, including a meeting at which he disclosed that he was currently considering negotiating with Cal Fire to take over the fire duties of the city.  That conversation never went public, but it sure motivated acting Chief Carter to dump structural overtime and change the schedules at his fire stations.  You’d think that would have been a public conversation, but it was all handled behind closed doors with an “exclusive membership audience.” 

I did make one meeting, but it was a total pain in the ass, right in the middle of my work day I have to get cleaned up and change my clothes and forego my lunch to be spoon fed crap – no thanks.  They all know me anyway – the conversation is always different when I’m in the room – abbreviated, lots of body language and facial gestures. It’s always fun to get ahold of somebody who’s never heard of me, stupid enough to give me straight answers. That only happens once. 

Some of these people – and I’ll admit, some of them I know personally – really believe it’s okay to have secrets from the public. Makes them feel special, like one of the “in” crowd.   They think some information should be privileged.  That seems to be the going attitude Downtown these days. 

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