Civics lesson

Listen up, neophyte political watchdogs

Next Tuesday (Nov. 5), the seven-member City Council will consider whether to pass the so-called civil-sidewalks ordinance—the new and more politically correct name of what was originally known as the “sit/lie” ordinance. Only it remains to be seen how many of the seven will actually be present during the meeting and vote on the proposed new municipal law.

On Monday, Oct. 28, I was CC’d on an email from City Councilwoman Mary Goloff to her council colleagues that informed them she would be having surgery in the Bay Area the next day (Tuesday, Oct. 29). So Goloff won’t be at that meeting. Ostensibly, that would leave the decision in the hands of the remaining six.

However, it’s still unclear at this point whether Councilwoman Ann Schwab will be able to vote on the matter, either. Who does that leave? The senior member of the panel, Mayor Scott Gruendl; Vice Mayor Mark Sorensen, who was elected back in 2010; and the three City Council newbies: Sean Morgan, Tami Ritter and Randall Stone.

Schwab didn’t attend the last council meeting, the special study session last Tuesday (Oct. 22) on “downtown issues”—a euphemism for “how to clear out the transient and homeless folks in downtown.” It became clear during the gathering that a little controversy has been brewing over Schwab’s absence on such matters. Speaking from the dais, Goloff made a point of asking City Attorney Lori Barker why exactly she couldn’t participate.

Barker clearly articulated what neophyte political watchdogs—those who have just started paying attention to city issues—don’t understand: that Schwab cannot lawfully participate in certain discussions. “The Political Reform Act … provides that when a decision or discussion of a matter is being held that relates to a geographic location that’s within 500 feet of the location, for instance, of a property interest of a council member, [that member is] presumed to have a conflict of interest,” Barker explained.

That, of course, applied to Schwab in this particular instance, since the meeting was agendized as relating to downtown and she both owns a business and has a lease-hold interest in property in the region.

I recently saw Schwab downtown and asked her about the fuss over her recusal during that meeting (and others). She told me she’d been asked about that by some constituents and that she’d very much like to be involved. In fact, she pointed out how back in May, when the council first directed staff to draft a civil-sidewalks ordinance, she had asked that the panel strike the reference to downtown, so that she could participate. Morgan and Sorensen, who made the motion and seconded it, respectively, did not accept her friendly amendment.

Schwab had to disqualify herself from further discussions, or face potential administrative fines of $5,000 per violation, civil penalties, and perhaps even criminal penalties, according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission. She will be able to get in on the discussion only should the draft ordinance be broadened to include an area greater than the downtown. I could see things heading that way. We shall see.

Melissa Daugherty is editor of the CN&R.