Archive | December, 2013

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?

Finance Committee meeting, Part 2: here’s how the Capital Projects fund ends up over $3 million in the red

14 Dec

I was in such a hurry to flop out that post yesterday, I didn’t explain what made me so mad about that Finance Committee meeting. 

They were talking about the cost allocation study recently completed by a consultant. A cost allocation study is a breakdown of the costs related to doing business with each department in the city – everything from salaries and benefits of department employees  to that department’s share of the muni building water bill on the day they were working on a project.    Not only is this good information to know when council is making decisions on various projects, but it’s necessary to receive payment for those employees when they work on any project funded by a federal grant. 

Because we don’t have this study, we have gone seriously into the red doing these federal projects. The Capitol Projects fund is over by more than $3 million dollars as they’ve tapped it to pay the salaries of the employees who’ve been involved, in the tiniest way, in these projects. They wouldn’t tell me which projects, and I’m not going into the research, but I’ll use a state-funded project as an example.

For several years staff worked toward this Downtown remodel – the stupid roundabouts and re-striping, etc, etc, a project that has at last report already gone at least a million over budget. They racked up hours and hours on that project, and all those hours, along with the air-conditioning bill, were supposed to be paid by that project.   Staff will tell you, that project was paid for with state grants – as though, that’s not our tax money too? Well, don’t forget – for any grant, we have to match funds out of the city coffers, so stop letting them act like these grants are free manna from Heaven.

In the case of state grants, staff tells us, we are able to charge staff costs to the grant. But, I’m going to guess, without this cost allocation crap, we weren’t able to recoup as much money as we should have. And, don’t forget, a lot of it gets paid out of the matching funds.  Furthermore, in the case of projects done with federal grants, we are not allowed to even charge for the employees. We pay them and all the bills related to keeping them in a building right out of the Capital Projects Fund. That’s why that fund is over $3 million in the red. 

The problem here is still our stupid council. They have approved these projects, millions and millions of red dollars, without any concern for what they would actually do to our budget. If they didn’t know this stuff, they should have – they tell us, especially those fucking idiots Goloff and  Morgan, that we elected them to make decisions for us, we’re supposed to sit back and trust them to know what the hell they’re doing. 

That, my friends, is the joke, and unfortunately it is on us. 

Finance Committee meeting, Part 1: Round and round she goes, where she’ll stop, nobody knows…

13 Dec

This week I went to a couple of meetings, Finance and Sustainability Task Force. 

Go ahead, call me simplistic, but so many others, particularly bureaucrats, like to spend their time making things more complicated than they really are. These finance committee meetings are starting to blur together on me, they are so repetitive. Essentially, Chris Constantin tells the committee the city is over budget, real bad. But here’s the problem – some people, like Mark Sorensen, want to sit around wasting time on the WHY instead of getting their asses in gear and DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT. One more consultant slide show, and I swear to God, I’m going to dance on the table like Pee Wee Herman.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArMLPpkb7UQ

Frankly, Pee Wee had a better crowd.

If the city of Chico were a “household” right now, they’d be standing on their lawn watching burly guys dump their furniture on the sidewalk. Here’s that bit from Michael’s Moore’s “Roger and Me” that superimposes the GM Christmas party over the eviction of a young woman and her kids from their home. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjHQnX8KMnc

But I sit in these meetings with these people wearing nice clothes, carrying expensive electronic devices – they will all continue to get their salaries, even as the city moves further into deficit and jobs and services are cut. Every meeting, the same old same old – we’re over-budget, and we have to quit spending!  Meeting after meeting, they trot out the same figures – right now, they can identify over $15,000,000 in missing funds. Well, not missing exactly – SPENT!  Spent on the salaries and benefits of city employees, many of whom are now collecting unemployment. 

I have sat through at least two meetings lately during which finance director Chris Constantin told the council, one very large problem is they don’t have a “cost allocation plan.” A cost allocation plan says exactly how much each employee costs, how much each department spends on everything from employee compensation to their share of PG&E. This seems like a no-brainer, but they haven’t done one since 2001. I know why – because corrupt and incompetent people were running out town – duh, how many times do we have to hash that? 

Mark Sorensen always wants to ask the question, “why haven’t we done this study since 2001?” Well, let me venture Mark – because council hasn’t asked for it, and Dave Burkland sure as hell wasn’t going to volunteer it. Now I must ask Mark, are you toying with the idea of going after Burkland, Hennessy, and whoever else may be complicit in this affair – like the entire city staff and, let’s not forget, the council members who sat through it all like they were passing around a can of nitrous oxide?  Because, if not, shut the fuck up Mark. I’m tired of talking about “why did they do this” – I want to talk about what you intend to do about it.

Constantin outlined a simple plan to start filling in the deficits, now that Brian Nakamura has eliminated so many staffers. This will be a long slow road. I can’t help but ask, and did – please negotiate better contracts in this round of contract talks, which are simply not being talked about before the public. The commiteee, Stone and Sorensen, with Gruendl missing, just stared back at me and voted to “accept” Constantin’s report. With that the meeting was over at about 9am.

It’s like we’re in a sinking boat, and every time they lower the bucket in there to bail out water, they make the hole bigger. 

I’ll get back to the STF meeting later – a really interesting session regarding the Brown Act.

Meet the Taskmaster!

11 Dec

Just when you forgot how pissed you were about the bag ban and the Climate Action Plan (CAP) and all those ridiculous edicts out of the appropriately named “Sustainability Task Force,” here they come again. But there’s been a long-awaited shake-up on the STF. If you thought Ann Schwab was a tight-assed little fascist, just wait til you get a load of new chair Mark Stemen. For years Stemen complained that the STF had no teeth, wasn’t quick enough to mandate human behavior change, and that Chico was going to perish as a result of our inaction regarding global warming. I like Mark, I think his heart is oftentimes in the right place, but he’s way too quick to place himself above the law and try to mandate the behavior of others.

Tomorrow Stemen and the other members of the task force will be sworn in, read their rights and responsibilities, and given a quick overview of the Climate Action Plan and how the city has moved, or not moved in Stemen’s opinion, to implement this plan. 

Honestly, I haven’t read the plan for over a year. It was offensive to me,  but I can’t remember the particulars. Of course, some of this stuff makes perfect sense – cut electrical usage in public buildings by implementing agreed upon efficiency standards – a no brainer, as far as I’m concerned. But, I could never understand why they still ran the air conditioning at City Hall until everybody was forced to carry a sweater. That’s changed now, but only because we’re facing bankruptcy and they can’t afford the rates they helped PG&E jack up. The whole thing has always seemed completely stupid and hypocritical to me. And now we’ve got Stemen, who’s ready to force us to do what he thinks is for our own good!

That’s the Sustainability Task Force, 5:30 pm, tomorrow (Thursday December 12) in conference room 1, at City Hall. 

 

Joseph Neff: public salaries and benefits need to reflect private sector salaries and benefits

7 Dec

I know I’m not  the only one who is worried about the unsustainable salaries, pensions and benefits given to our public employees, and now the letters are starting to show up. A great letter from Michael Jones, which I was not able to get ahold of fast enough to re-run here, and today this letter from Joseph Neff of Corning. 

I wish more of you pissed off people would find time to write an e-mail or letter to the paper.  I realize,  a lot of people have trouble putting words to paper – hey, send your drafts in to the blog, we’ll work on them together. We don’t tell you what to say here, but we can read your letter over to see if it makes sense, help you check your facts, and just check grammar and spelling, etc.  That’s what Chico Taxpayers is all about, working together toward a common goal. And right now, the goal at CTA is, get sustainable contracts for  city employees. I’m not talking about impoverishing people – that would be bad for our town. I’m talking about taking some of the load off the taxpayers, who are so overburdened at present, there is not enough “discretionary” cash in our community.  

Right now our town, county, and most of the state, are in a downward spiral, headed for catastrophe. Our government sees the taxpayers as a Golden Goose, which could work in a wealthy state like California, sure. But, they seem to be impatient for the eggs, and right now they are standing over us with an ax getting ready to do a little exploratory surgery. Governor Jerry Brown would make an awful farmer – “give me those eggs, or it’s dinner time, and you’re the guest of honor!”  Same thing here in Chico, with Foxy Loxy Gruendl as our Mayor. Meanwhile, the boy who is supposed to be watching the chicken house, Mark Sorensen, has got his thumb up his ass or something, I just can’t figure him out. One minute he’s the champion  of fiscal sunshine (ooh oooh! THEY’RE using the sewer fund inappropriately!)  and the next minute you couldn’t pull news of the contract talks out of his ass with a John Deere 8RT. 

Joseph Neff reminds us of that sales tax increase some of the voters passed last election. Yes, Brown told us that money would save college students up and down the state, and now he’s used it to give raises, including his own. I knew he would do that, but a majority of California voters, most of them either public workers or the dependents of various programs, went along with Farmer Brown. They thought they would be spared, while the rest of us chickens got marched off to that bloody stump in the corner of the pen.  Now many of those public workers are being canned (whack!) and the programs are being cut (chop!), and those chickens are really pissed off. There’s nothing quite so sad yet comical as  pissed off chickens. 

Thanks Joseph Neff for this letter below:

 

Letter: Your tax hike went to raises, pensions

Chico Enterprise-Record

POSTED:   12/06/2013 10:41:12 PM PST

Conservative voters realized that Gov. Jerry Brown’s sales tax increases would not be used to benefit taxpayers but to provide lawmakers a raise and to protect the golden pensions of public employees.

As a 45-year career employee with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering and an MBA, my two private-sector pensions are $15,000 yearly. Only two of six career employers had pensions during the past 50 years of plant closures from union strikes, global competition and company moves to right to work, more business friendly states.

None of my wife’s 30-year employers, including 11 as a teacher and 20 as either a degreed hospital medical records administrator, or as an advanced degreed nuclear medicine technologist supervisor, had pensions. Only one had a 401(k) plan. That is typical of the private sector for degreed private sector employees since the 1950s.

Public employee pensions should be halved to civilian levels, delayed to age 65, never adjusted for inflation, and based only on the first $50,000 of pre-retirement income. A $25,000 maximum annual public employee pension would be fair since savings and Social Security will provide the needed additional two-thirds of retirement spending.

— Joseph J. Neff, Corning

Bits and pieces – of asses and asskickers!

5 Dec

Just a few notes:

 I sent an e-mail to the Butte County supervisors recently, and got a much welcome response from my Third District Super,  Maureen Kirk. Maureen says they will be sending a letter of protest to the CPUC, it’s in the consent agenda for the December 10 meeting. I will keep an eye out for the agenda on the Butte County website to get the time specific and see if there’s any reason to pull the item. I haven’t written to the Chico Council yet, but will soon.

Take a look at Melissa Daugherty’s column in today’s News and Review – http://www.newsreview.com/chico/thin-blue-line/content?oid=12196688   Holy Cop Flap BatMom! “This whole flap is a result of the very contentious negotiations taking place between the CPOA and the city. Stone, who sits on the Police Community Advisory Board, has been the City Council’s most vocal member when it comes to pointing out that the city’s budget deficit is tied to the unsustainable pay and benefits packages that were afforded to public-safety employees when Chico was the land of milk and honey—or at least governed that way. The city can no longer afford them.”  Thanks to Daugherty for jump starting this conversation, I hope we can keep it rambling long enough to generate some citywide interest.

I will give these gals the “Asskicker of the Week” award. 

 Interesting item at Tuesday’s council meeting – Sean Morgan questioned a $6,000 raise for a $32,000 clerk who has been doing work beyond their job description, suggesting the clerk be given a promotion that entailed performance of those duties, but no pay raise. Council just gave the police department promotions with raises, what’s with that?  They gave Sergeant George Laver a promotion to Lieutenant knowing he would retire within a year, taking 90 percent of a salary for a position he held for less than a year.  The excuse? They said he was already doing work beyond his job description.

Well, he was getting paid beyond his job description too, they don’t mention that. As a sergeant, Laver’s base pay was about $95,000/year, but he was able to keep it around $120,000/year with overtime. That’s more than a lieutenant’s base salary, so how could Laver have been doing work beyond $120,000 as a sergeant? Bionic Man? But I think I’ve figured it out. I used to think “spiking” meant, running up one’s salary, and therefore their pension, with overtime. Some states allow “public safety” workers to do this, but I’ve been told it’s not allowed in California. So,  Laver would have retired at 90% of $95,000.  Now I find, “spiking” can also mean, last minute promotion to a higher salary. This has been done in Chico many times, I always wondered – why would they promote some of these chiefs so close to retirement age?  Well, there it is. Now Laver will retire at 90% of about $103,000. It might sound nickel and dime, but Laver’s just a drop in the bucket – they do this every day in police departments and other “public safety” agencies every day, and we pay for it.  

But Sean Morgan will deny a $32,000 clerk a $6,000 raise, saying “public safety should come first”  Well, maybe he should give the police department his $6,000+ city council salary, along with the $8,000+ spent on his benefits package, which he receives in addition to his public salary and benefits from Chico State. 

Morgan and Laver get the “Jackass of the Week” award.

Chico PD:  Yer getting a little close to our feed bucket there, Missy!

Chico PD: Yer getting a little close to our feed bucket there, Missy!

News from the folks at Marysville For Reasonable Water Rates

1 Dec

I have been in touch with  Marysville for Reasonable Water Rates, and a member has  sent me several downloads regarding Cal Water’s rate hikes. She also added me to her notification list for upcoming meetings. She’s in contact with people from other nearby towns like Dixon, as well as other towns around California who want to fight this upcoming Cal Water rate hike. She is trying to get a meeting together, I’m presuming in Marysville, for early in 2014. 

 
They are trying to get Adam Scow, of Food and Water Watch, to speak at the meeting.  I don’t know much about FWW, but this man is connected to various water boards, and he must know something worth sharing.
 
I’ve been told that Butte County Supervisors will discuss taking some sort of action on this issue, possibly sending a letter to the CPUC, on December 10. I will try to get more information about time specific and hope those of you who are able to give up a day’s pay to attend will come. You could also write to the supervisors, 
There’s a good conversation going on the Marysville Facebook page