Sustainability Task Force meeting a lesson on “open meetings” law

14 Dec

Well, I’m so glad I attended Thursday nights Sustainability Task Force meeting, it was very enlightening.  In swearing in this new committee, Debbie Presson gave a very informative presentation on the Brown Act.

I will say, Mark Stemen is very businesslike, can run these meetings without the sickening banter and chit-chat that added hours. But, I will ask committee member Mike Rubio to pay attention. At 5:30 staffer Brandon Vieg noted that two members had not arrived, one of whom, Bill Loker, had notified staff that he would not be able to make it. Vieg suggested the group wait a few more minutes for Rubio.  After a few minutes, committee member Cheri Chastain pulled out her cell phone and called Rubio. She opened the conversation with the usual casual greeting banter, then asked, “Got anything special going on tonight?” Then a pause, then a snicker, and she hung up the phone. From the conversation, I got the distinct impression that Mr. Rubio was sitting in front of his boob tube, but I could be wrong. He said he was only a couple of blocks away, and would make haste in getting to the meeting.

Excuse me for all the cusswords I wrote in my notes regarding Mr. Rubio, but the agenda for this meeting, as Vieg repeated several times, was very simple, and the meeting should have been over pretty quick.  I was counting on getting home in time for the beginning of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” – one of the top ten greatest sci-fi movies ever made, and the last time I’d seen it offered on broadcast tv I was about 8 years old.  It’s one of my fave’s but I don’t have time to sit around collecting videos, so when I heard it was going to be on tv, I cemented my plans, damn the jumbling incompetency of committee members.

I’ll give Rubio this much – he was there within 10 minutes, and the meeting was called to order at 5:40. But this precedent doesn’t set well with me – like so many of these feel-good committee members, Rubio  is completely oblivious to what 10 minutes of staff time can cost.  And,  Vieg was there as a substitute, after his day should have been done, and it’s just disrespectful, okay Mike?  Presson acts like she doesn’t mind, but she makes a remark here and there that says otherwise, you know, like your friend’s mom, when she doesn’t have the nerve to tell you to go home.

Let’s just take a time out here, think about this.  I just wrote two posts regarding the Finance Committee meeting I attended earlier this week.  The whole time I sat in on that cost allocation conversation I wondered how much these meetings cost. I had heard a figure of $10,000 tossed onto the STF a couple of years ago at a council meeting – and I and some others present knew that figure was not right, because staffer Linda Herman was making over $80,000/year just in salary, primarily attending to the activities of the STF. I knew the STF cost more than $10,000 a year, give me a break. Well, Debbie Presson answered my question the other night – “In 2006, we ID’d over $750,000 [in staff time] going into boards and commissions…”  That, of course, would include her time, at $134,000/year salary plus benies and 96 percent of her pension cost. Plus the cost of lights and sewer to her office while she was actually working on those reports.

Presson, at that point in her presentation, was explaining why the meetings were stopped as of March this year, and a whole new committee was formed. Frankly, I think they were really overthrowing Schwab, who has become somewhat of a pariah on council these days. But, why argue after a purge, just get to the business of rounding up the disembodied heads and cleaning up the blood stains.

So, the meeting was called to order and Debbie Presson swore in the group  – wouldn’t it be funny, if they just had to stand there while this pretty, petite lady laid into them with a bunch of tawdry language? No, it was nothing like that – but I enjoyed it. They promised to protect the US and California constitutions, which I find highly amusing since everything about their dumb plans seems more like an assault on those constitutions.  

But it got good when Presson launched into a great presentation on the  Brown Act. Excuse me, I love this stuff, I wish I had popcorn. All these years I’ve been suspicious about various activities Downtown, and yeah, I had every right to be. The stories Presson told – here’s my fave: after she gave this presentation to a past council, one member said, “the best meetings we’ve had have been at Duffy’s.”  In Presson’s words relating that story, “I almost had a heart attack.” She didn’t tell us how she handled that one, suffice to say, I’ve heard her warn these people on various occasions, and apparently, she’s got to be constantly on watch. Which is impossible, let’s face it. That story told me, these people are only as good as we expect them to be. I’m sure, I know alot of people, several members of my own chat group, who seem to think it’s okay to violate the rules, if it’s your group that’s doing it!  Silly old rules!

The basic premise of the Brown Act, according to Presson, is that “it was designed to ensure the public has a chance to participate…to hear your deliberations…”  In other words, the public needs to know what or who influenced the decisions that are being made by our public boards and commissions. She went on, “a small group behind closed doors precludes the chances of the public being able to participate…”

Here I would like to say, these poorly noticed, badly attended meetings, by her definition, should be considered a violation of the Brown Act. It’s just so subjective, and Staff gets to make the determination when there’s been a violation. If you complain to the Fair Political Practices Commission, it’s your word against an officer of the court, great, that’s going to fly. 

Years ago, a group of connected conservatives came up with the “RDA Citizens Oversight Commitee,” which was taken in under the umbrella of city commissions. But, the city wouldn’t give them a staffer, just allowed them to have meetings, including e-mail chat sessions, without any notification process, no minutes or agendas, and no staffer attached to keep records of their conversations. But, these people were expected to be allowed to make recommendations to council regarding the spending of our then flush RDA fund. It was like a group of people found a big bag of cocaine, and thought, “wow, this is the greatest stuff I have ever had, I better spread it around my selected friends…” They just went nuts. One member of the group successfully lobbied for the use of funds to help Enloe with it’s expansion, another member unsuccessfully lobbied for an $8 million aquatic center. 

I tried to monitor these conversations, all the while screaming that it was in violation of the Brown Act. I was right, the RDA COC was eventually canned, in a very heated discussion, during which council member Dan Herbert made it very clear they had to have a staffer to be legal, and the city could not afford to appoint a staffer at that time. I was mad because they wouldn’t appoint a staffer, but I had to agree with Herbert. What the RDA COC actually amounted to was a completely inappropriate favoritism of certain members of the public. You know, like the Park Commission is run by the Friends of the Park, but at least it’s all in the record. 

The Brown Act is very simple, and Presson was very clear the other night. For example,  no majority (half or more of  the members) of a commission is allowed to have these casual conversations regarding “business that is before the committee or commission or task force” without making every formal effort to include the public. The meetings have to be at a standard time, noticed within 72 hours to the public, etc. The rules are very strict. Check this out – these are instances of violations. I’ll use the example of a 7 member committee, like the STF, with a majority of 4. 

  • Daisy Chain: Member A calls Member B to discuss business before the group. Then Member B calls Member C – at this point they are okay. But then, Member C calls Member D, and there you have it – BUSTED!
  • Hub and Spoke: A staffer (hub) calls one member of the group (spoke), that member calls another – if this conversation goes to a third member of the committee, it constitutes a majority – BUSTED!

I think these two examples illustrate how careful a board member must be, and should be. Think about it – this is how the Esplanade League tried to control the filling of the late Colleen Jarvis’ seat. They lobbied  members of council via e-mail – Scott Gruendl, Dan Nguyen-Tan, and Maureen Kirk – and got those members’ “guarantee” that they would vote to place Michael Stauffer in Jarvis’ seat. That is illegal. When I came forward with the e-mail in which they announced their clandestine activities, it caused a ruckus that resulted in Jarvis’ seat remaining empty until the next election. It should have resulted in FPPC fines for the three councilors involved, but I didn’t know I could do that at the time.  It takes a pile of paperwork, the FPPC is not exactly user friendly. But when Larry Wahl made some decisions as a Planning Commissioner without announcing that he’d taken campaign contributions from some of the principals in those actions, he was fined about $12,000.

Presson reported that at the very least, a violation could result in the invalidation of the action taken out of the illegal discussion.

She tried to assure the commissioners – it’s not a violation to have coffee together, attend an event together – as long as they don’t discuss “business before the board.”

Here’s the slippery slope for me – harken back to the Duffy’s story. You know damn well these people have inappropriate conversations, not only among themselves, but with PACS like the Esplanade League and the Friends of the Park, etc. You know damned well neither Presson nor the public at large could possibly ferret out every inappropriate conversation these people have, and I’ll add  – you know damned well issues are deliberated and decisions are made behind our backs every fucking day.

Right now I have major concerns about the Economic Development Committee. These meetings went underground sometime last fall, with talk of alternating the regular meetings, held at city hall, with every other month a meeting at a local business. When I pressed them, they assured me that those meetings would be public and noticed, but they weren’t convincing. How could the public be invited, at large, into a private business? Then staffer Shawn Tillman expressed doubt about noticing these meetings – what business owner was going to agree to that? The committee assured me I’d be noticed, but I never was. Finally, after some carping, I got this e-mail from Brian Nakamura way back on November 21:

 I wanted to let you know that due to the holidays and recent departure of Mr. Tillman we are scheduling the next EDC meeting for Wednesday December 18 and will not have the November meeting.

As of now, there is no listing on the agendas page. Of course, Presson noted the 72 hours law, and also implied that at the city of  Chico, Saturday is considered a “business” day. That only matters for deadlines, meaning, when you have an appeal to the city, you have to count Saturdays in that “15 days” you have to get your paperwork in. And it means, Presson doesn’t have to post the council agenda til Saturday before a meeting if she doesn’t feel like it. She reminded us the other night, it’s a nice thing she does sending out the agenda the previous Wednesday, she doesn’t have to.   So, I guess I have to wait until Monday to be formally noticed for this Economic Development meeting. We’ll see what happens.

Now, sorry if you were waiting to hear all about Sustainability – you actually did. See, we have to figure out – are  these Sustainability Task Force meetings sustainable?

10 Responses to “Sustainability Task Force meeting a lesson on “open meetings” law”

  1. Dad December 14, 2013 at 9:32 am #

    The commissioners should have to pay for the staff time.

    • Juanita Sumner December 14, 2013 at 9:48 am #

      Wow, great idea. Let’s do the figures.

      Debbie Presson makes about $200,000/year in total compensation (that is a guess based on $135,000 salary and we pay 96 percent of her benies) to work 2,000 hours a year – she does overtime but I’ll leave that out. So, she’s making roughly $100 an hour. I stayed at the meeting til 6:30, I don’t know how long it rambled along after that. So, when I left, each of those commissioners owed about $15, just for Presson. Then there’s Vieg, I’m not sure what he makes. He was filling in for staffer Mark Wolfe, who takes in over $100,000 a year in salary.

      And let’s not forget, the lights and heat were on, the water was running in the drinking fountain. Etc. Given that cost allocation study, I think we could make a pretty good argument that each commissioner should chip in a certain amount. If any member of the public or public group wants to use those rooms at city hall, the charges add up pretty fast, including a non-refundable cleaning fee. It’s in the “fee schedule” in the city code, available at the city website.

      At the very least, we could make a pretty good case for only calling these damned meetings when it’s absolutely necessary and then keeping the inane chit-chat ZIPPED. No more chitter chatter about “how your son’s doing now that he’s out of rehab” or “I was born at home in Chapmantown!” One member did not shut up about himself until order was called – thank Goddess! I know I told people I left early because “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was going to be on tv that evening – I bolted like a jack rabbit when commissioner Dave Donnan piped up after the Climate Action Plan update and suggested a round-the-table introduction session during which members would “tell a little about why they wanted to be on this committee…” Oh puh-LEEZE! This is Dave Donnan, and this is why he should never be given a public office.

  2. Juanita Sumner December 17, 2013 at 10:10 am #

    Mark Stemen commented at “world of juanita”:

    I have no argument with you over the cost of staffing or the Brown Act. As you saw that night, I understand the Brown Act. I feel no need to discuss the CAP with my fellow STF members outside of the meetings, nor was my attempt to hold a meeting outside of their structure a violation of the Brown Act.
    If I have a beef about the Brown Act is is with the City. They are interpreting the Act in a way that says only they can notice the public, and more importantly, only they can take minutes, which is not true. Last night at the BPPC meeting, Dan E told the members of the tree committee they could not meet without him or staff, and they didn’t have time right now, even though the committee has not met in months. Mark H asked directly if a member of the committee could take minutes, and he had to admit they could, but he would prefer they not. So they won’t, and thus the key documents the rest of the City staff needs from the BPPC sit on a shelf in draft form.
    The STF will operate differently.

    • Juanita Sumner December 17, 2013 at 10:11 am #

      Juanita commented at “world of juanita”:

      I’m uncomfortable with your interpretation of the Brown Act. I’ll ask the city attorney’s office and see what they say, get back to you. But I’m going to take it to the other blog – thanks for coming over.

      • Mark December 17, 2013 at 10:54 am #

        Same CTA blog, different thread.

      • Juanita Sumner December 17, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

        Yeah, I forgot where I put it, I’ll fix that. I want to keep the threads on one blog.

        Crap, now I can’t find the other comment you made, so I’ll just answer you here (oh yeah, as my family comes marching up the stairs like the cast of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”).

        I am uncomfortable with the idea that we don’t all agree on what the Brown Act says. All this interpretation, the tax-ratepayers are going to get left out.

    • Michael Jones December 21, 2013 at 8:50 am #

      That’s (I believe) exactly the problem. Staff want all info to flow through them, and them that controls the info, controls the policy. Beardsley used to edit the Park Commission minutes to meet his goals, not what the Commission had made as policy.

      I’m planning on reading up on the Brown Act more. But committees, task forces, and Commissions need to be able to take their own minutes and post their own agendas free from staff control. I took this issue to the Internal Affairs Committee once a long time ago. Steve Bertagna agendized it for me. But they did nothing. And what has happened the past ten years to Chico’s budget? And why? Because staff has been out of control without proper oversight. Or to put it another way, staff has been in nearly full control, while the elected and appointed officials are given little controversies to attend to to keep them busy.

      Michael Jones

      • Juanita Sumner December 21, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

        I might go for members taking minutes if there is an unedited video or audio recording made available to the public via the website.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Is Council Abusing Closed Session Exceptions? | Truth Matters, Chico! - December 16, 2013

    […] the Chico Taxpayers Association’s December 14 blog post, Sustainability Task Force meeting a lesson on “open meetings” law, Chico City Clerk Debbie Presson is reported as having commented, “[The Brown […]

  2. Again, the city fiddles while Chico burns | Chico Taxpayers Association - November 2, 2017

    […] https://chicotaxpayers.com/2013/12/14/sustainability-task-force-meeting-a-lesson-on-open-meetings-la… […]

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