Americans generally believe in open government. We give our democratically-elected federal, state and local governments enormous authority over our lives and pay for the privilege with a substantial percentage of our earnings, the least we want in return is to know what the government is up to. To that end, both the federal and state governments have passed “open government” laws that require open meetings and the release of public information. In California, the Brown Act regulates how government meetings can be held, while the California Public Records Act (CPRA) provides for access to public records.
Local politicians and city employees are not particularly fond of these laws. They limit the deals they can do behind the scenes and make them more accountable to the public – at least in communities where there is a functioning press keeping tabs on local government. While San Leandro is not one of those communities – the Daily Review doesn’t even have a journalist assign to our city, and neither the San Leandro Times or San Leandro Patch do any investigative journalism -, it does have a few independent bloggers as well as concerned citizens that once in a while organize around a particular issue. City officials, therefore, have an interest in trying to circumvent these open government laws that might expose their doings.
I have written before about how recently the City Council moved to pass a policy that would automatically destroy all their e-mails and how they have gotten rid of narrative minutes of city meetings. Just as egregious, however, is a little known City Council policy of approving items without properly agendizing them – thus hiding their actions from the public.
According to the Brown Act, before any meeting the government body must “post an agenda containing a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed at the meeting.” The City Council, however, does not need to either discuss any item on the agenda or vote individually on those items. Indeed, most meeting agendas include a “Consent Calendar” of items that the City Council will approve altogether and without discussion. Any member of the City Council can “pull” an item from the consent calendar, for individual consideration, but members of the public cannot do so. Members of the public can speak about any of the items in the Consent Calendar, but in order to do so, they must know what those items are.
The San Leandro City Council operates both as a full body and through standing committees. These committees are usually composed of 3 City Council members are usually deal with concrete issues: rules, finance, facilities, relationship with the school district, etc. In addition to the standing committees, the City Council occasionally creates ad-hoc committees to handle issues that come up, such as the hiring of a new city manager. These committees are supposed to do the nitty-gritty work of the Council, read staff reports, discuss issues and decide upon them. While these committees must publish agendas for their meetings and their meetings are open to the public, they mostly meet during the day when most people are at work and unable to attend, and therefore they seldom see any public participation. City Council Committee members are therefore free to discuss and decide on issues without any public input.
The recommendations made by City Council Committees are supposed to be discussed and approved by the whole City Council before they become “law”. They should be listed in the agenda as such, as required by the Brown Act. They are not in San Leandro. Rather, the City Council is asked to approve the minutes of the different committee meetings within the consent calendar, and by doing so, they approve their recommendation. For example, let’s say that the Business & Housing Development Committee recommends increasing business fees by 1,000%, the agenda for the next City Council meeting should say: “Action: Approve increase of business fees by 1000%”. What it would actually say is: “Accept Business & Housing Development Committee minutes”. When the City Council approves the minutes, it also approves the tax increase. The public would have no clue as to what had just happened.
It’s not only the public that gets blindsided – new City Council members do as well, as they’re often not told of this policy until something comes up. Indeed, due to complaints by a City Council member, more recent City Council agendas have been a bit more clear as to what the Council is voting to approve, actually listing the committees’ recommendations, but they still don’t make it clear that the Council is approving those recommendations when they approve the minutes.