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Out Of Crisis Comes Opportunity

REFORMS LA - Albert Einstein saw a crisis not as a time to panic and act irrationally, but as an opportunity for us to find the very best in ourselves and become inventive.

Einstein warned against the laziness with which many of us attempt to find solutions to problems.  I fear that laziness might drive future efforts at city hall to recover from its current crisis.  Sweep it under the rug. Kick the can down the road.

When my former boss, Councilman Joel Wachs (photo above), introduced a motion in 1996 to create a citywide system of neighborhood councils by ordinance, he said, “If there's one message from around the city that is clear, it's that people have something to say.  They want to be heard.  They want a chance to participate.  They want to feel they can make a difference and make things better.”

And Mayor Jim Hahn believed that the greatest unit of distance is the distance between the public and city hall.

This is even more true today.

I’ve attempted to drill down past the big ticket reforms, such as homelessness, crime, and infrastructure that all we all agree must be given serious attention, and to suggest some core reforms that could help promote more public participation in government and work toward restoring the public’s faith in their local government.

For the city council:

* Improve the city charter’s Early Warning System

The city charter guarantees that neighborhood councils have the ability to weigh in before decisions are made at City Hall.  But time after time, the city council will schedule important decisions for consideration based on the minimum public notification limits prescribed by the state’s Ralph M. Brown Act.  This is especially true when it comes to placing measures on the ballot when time is of the essence.

The problem is that before a neighborhood council can discuss matters that are coming before the city council, it too must meet the Brown’s Act’s notification requirements.  And neighborhood councils don’t meet multiple times during the week.

*  Design a public outreach plan The city council should adopt rules and procedures for it will communicate with the public.  Since neighborhood councils are required to have outreach plans as a requirement of certification, the city council should have one too.   *  Print city council agendas in Spanish * Improve the public testimony rules  Limiting testimony on each item to a cumulative amount of time for all speakers might work if it was assumed that all the speakers would have nothing of value to say.  But that's playing to the lowest common denominator.  City council members are the highest paid in the legislators in the nation.  They can earn their pay by respecting the public’s right to be heard.   And making those who wish to provide general public comments about items not on the agenda wait until the end of the meeting, discourages public participation.  *  Use technology to allow more people to participate Few people have the ability to take time from work or their family to travel to City Hall to wait hours for the opportunity to address their elected representatives for two minutes.  21st century solutions should be employed to allow people to have their voices heard without coming to City Hall as if this was still the 18th century.  

* Amend or abolish Council Rule 7   The rule states that the city council doesn't have to permit public testimony if comments were permitted during a committee meeting.   This has a chilling effect on public participation. If someone were to speak during a committee meeting, the other members of the city council have no idea what was said.  Minutes are not taken in committee meetings. Let the public be heard. 

* Record city council member attendance There are really only two expectations of a city council member – pass a balanced city budget each year, and show up to work on time. It’s not a big ask. City council presidents, going back in time forever, have struggled with the problem of getting meetings started on time because of late-arriving members, and losing quorums when members leave early without a pre-approved excuse.  City council members who arrive late or leave early should be required to publicly explain their reasons. There should be an automatic roll call at 10 a.m. for the record.  Somehow, the city clerk staff is always there on time. And the time at which each member comes and goes from the Council Chamber should be recorded in the minutes. As it is now, a member who is present for any part of a meeting is recorded as having been present for the entire meeting.  Imagine having that rule at a real job. 

* Turn on the cameras If the cameras in the Council Chamber were turned on at 10 a.m., the public would be able to see who has arrived on time.    

* Change the way items are waived by a committee The chair of a city council committee can “waive consideration” of an item and send it straight to the city council often with a recommendation for action.  That’s too much power for a committee chair.  A majority of the committee members should be required to waive consideration of an item.  

*  Stating the reason for urgencies There are legitimate reasons for the city council to ignore the regular processes to approve a motion or enact a law, so council rules 16, 23, 39, and 64 provide shortcuts.  But far too often these procedures are used to help friends and/or sneak an item through the process.   Many of the shortcuts simply require 10 city council members to vote to declare that the matter is so urgent that it can’t meet the state-required 72-hour posting requirement. One solution is to require the city council to also record an explanation as to exactly why that matter is so urgent.  Maybe it’s non-controversial and routine.  Maybe it’s to help a friend. Such a statement should also be required when “placeholder” items appear on the City Council agenda.  This happens when the need to act quickly is so intense that the item is printed on the city council’s agenda even before the committee has acted. 

* Explain “forthwith” actions  Council Rule 51 allows the city council to send a matter immediately (forthwith) to the mayor for signature or veto without allowing time for the city council to reconsider its action at its next meeting, and without giving the public time to offer opinions to the mayor.  All forthwith actions should include an explanation of the urgency.   

* Explaining closed city council sessions

If the city council holds a closed session to discuss anticipated litigation, the recordings should be made public after two years if no litigation is filed, when the statute of limitations passes, or when the controversy is concluded. 

After closed door sessions, the city council should publicly announce which items were discussed that weren’t confidential.

If the city attorney’s representative in a closed session of the city council walks out after issuing warnings that a potential violation of the Brown Act has occurred, or is about to occur (it has happened), the city attorney shall notify the public and media ASAP so that we can all know that a big problem might be forthcoming.

Every member’s vote on a final action should be disclosed at the end of a closed session.

* Disclose city council settlements

Before the city council agrees to a settlement, the deal shall be made public at least 10 calendar days before the meeting, or 15 days if it’s a collective bargaining agreement so the public will have time to weigh in.

* Make it easier for the public to communicate with city council members 

The city council should direct that the city’s website be modified so that people can have the ability to send the same message to all members of the city council with push of one button.  Having to send 15 separate messages does nothing to encourage public participation.

*  Use the web pages of city officials for real communication

All city officials are allowed to maintain an official web page using the city's internet servers with maintenance provided by city staff.  The problem is that these pages are used as one-way propaganda tools when they should also be used for meaningful communication with constituents. They show them kissing babies, breaking ground with golden shovels on some project, filling potholes in business attire, and on and on. 

In return for being given this public resource, city officials need to regularly devote part of their websites to having engage in real-time Q&A sessions with constituents. A third party would have to select the questions (to avoid profanity and long-winded "speechifying") and to permit follow-up questions if the answer is evasive.

The moderators could be a battery of college journalism students, perhaps with political science and public policy students. The cadre of students could be constantly refreshed as students graduate.  Preserve the questions and answers into an FAQ.

*  Return to printing neighborhood council community impact statements (CIS) on agendas 

When the program was first adopted by the city council, the first CIS received was printed on the agenda, and the city clerk testified that it would not create an undue burden on his office.  

Later, that was revoked using the bogus argument that city council members can be counted upon to always read these statements that are included in their council meeting briefing packages assembled by their staffs.  Later, the Neighborhood Council Review Commission found the statements so valuable that it recommended that all of them be printed on the agendas.

*  Invite the neighborhood councils to rank possible bond measure priorities

The usual process for the development of a bond measure for the ballot is for the city council to late until the last minute to direct city staff to put together the legal language to address some specific need.  he public is always left out of the entire process except to be asked to vote for it.

Instead, neighborhood councils could rank bond measure priorities with the assistance of city staff. Whenever the councils decide the time is right, they would ask the city council to place it on the ballot. In this way, the campaign to pass the measure would begin with the support of a large segment of the public because they designed it.

To the mayor:

* Instruct general managers to personally respond to as many media questions as is humanly possible, and not hide behind public relations personnel to avoid answering the tough questions.  The media is not the enemy.

* Invite the public to submit ideas and rank them

An ongoing vote of the public will re-rank the most popular suggestions.

* Hold real town hall meetings

Visit different parts of the city from time-to-time, and give participants hand-held voting equipment and computer software that would permit everyone in the room to learn about, be asked questions about, and have their choices recorded on the city’s most pressing issues.

I’ve been part of several of these meetings. People pay more attention because they’re more involved.

* Hold open houses

From time-to-time hold an open house in your office or around the city.  Each person gets three minutes of face time to say what they want. 

Assign a deputy mayor for public participation

As part of their other duties, assign one of the deputy mayors to be responsible for promoting transparency and public participation throughout city government.

Involve neighborhood council representatives in the selection of general managers, and their subsequent evaluations

* Instruct that all departments create and maintain a list of persons in their departments who are the primary contacts for neighborhood councils.

Improve the diversity of city commissions

Include more socioeconomic diversity on some or all city commissions by appointing at least one working person.  Far too often commissioners have been elites. They are retired, self-employed, head of a union or non-profit organization, business owner, etc. “Ordinary folks” aren’t represented. This may require meeting at night, or allowing commissioners to teleconference.

Instruct that city commission minutes be adequately descriptive

The minutes should include a description of the issues raised during the discussions, the reasoning (briefly) behind the decisions, and the points raised by the public speakers.

* Instruct that commission agenda be more descriptive

The wording on agendas should go beyond the bare minimum required by the Brown Act.

Make general public comments easier to deliver

Instruct commissions to never put “general public comments” at the end of any agenda. It’s rude.

* Provide public comment options

Instruct commissions to allow those wishing to comment on a particular item to have the option of speaking before the commissioners begin their discussion, in order to try and influence the discussion, or after the commissioners have finished their discussion, but before they vote, in order to correct misinformation or to make final arguments.

Disclose future agenda items

If it is anticipated by the commission president that an item MAY appear on a future agenda, that item should be listed at the bottom of all preceding agendas. This can include a statement that the date is tentative and subject to change even after the agenda is released.

Often lobbyists and parties with a financial interest in an item will privately arrange with the commission president to have an item scheduled for a specific date, usually at a time when it's convenient for them. The problem is that the public never knows about it until the agenda is released, usually 72 hours in advance for a regular meeting, or 24 hours for a special meeting when the insiders want to wait until the last minute.

* Require commissions to have outreach plans

The city’s commission system was developed in the ‘20s as a way to infuse more public participation in the decision-making process. However, no one can remember a time when an individual city commissioner went into the community and gave people an opportunity to share thoughts and concerns with him/her on a timely issue in an informal and meaningful way. As a result, too many commissioners end up only representing their own points of view.

* Releasing staff reports

Instruct commissions that, except in the event of an urgency, the commission should not schedule an item, or cast a final vote on any item until the staff report, if there is one being prepared, has been made available to the neighborhood councils and public X working days before the meeting.  Far too often critically important reports aren’t available until moments before a meeting is to start.

Make public documents public

Instruct general managers and commissions that all preliminary drafts and department memoranda be declared public information.

Streamline public records requests

Instruct general managers and commissioners that requests for non-exempt public information shall be delivered by the end of the next working day.  Require departments and commissions to prepare a list of records that will be posted and updated on the interest so that a formal Public Records Act request won’t be needed to be used by the public.

Enforce and expand the travel reporting requirement

Administrative Code Section 4.242.75 requires that any city staff (elected officials are exempt) attending a convention file a written report upon returning that describing what they did, and most importantly, what they learned. This could be expanded by executive directive to include any events attended on city time.

*  Community Impact Statements

Instruct commissions print the first Community Impact Statement it receives from a neighborhood council on commission agendas … or all statements.

*  Creating commission agenda items

Allow a neighborhood council, or perhaps three of them together, to vote to place a matter on a commission agenda for consideration.

Involve neighborhood councils in prioritizing capital improvement projects

Ask neighborhood councils to designate, subject to approval by the City Council and mayor, X dollars worth of capital improvement projects in certain departments.

Bring back neighborhood service cabinets

Revive the Mayor Jim Hahn system of neighborhood service cabinets through which a deputy mayor and high-ranking city agency officials meet regularly with NC representatives, area by area, so that NCs present their service requests, and the deputy mayor gives directions to the city staff for handling them.

Disclose conflicts of interest

Instruct that each commissioner at the start of each meeting, declare whether or not they believe they have a conflict of interest in any matter that is on the agenda, or have had private conversations with the parties about to come before them. This helps eliminate the “I forgot” excuse. This was done by the old commission in ITA that regulated cable TV franchises.

* Improve the “forthwith” process

Tell the city council that any files sent to you “forthwith" should include an explanation of the urgency.  This would help alleviate concerns by the public that the action has been taken to purposely eliminate the public's ability to influence the mayor's actions, and to eliminate the ability of the city council to reconsider the item.

(Greg Nelson is a former general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, and served as chief of staff for former LA City Councilman Joel Wachs.  He can be reached at [email protected] This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )