Getting some sunshine

Chico City Council will consider moving up agenda posting

“We’re a divided council? I think not.”

That quip came from Mayor Ann Schwab at the end of an unusually short (barely more than an hour long) regular Chico City Council meeting Tuesday evening (March 15), after public hearings on two items that resulted in unanimous votes from the panel.

One of the items was whether to agendize a discussion on amending the Chico Administrative Procedure and Policy Manuel to include language that would move up the public-notification process related to regular council and committee meetings, thereby allowing for more sunshine.

The request came from Councilman Mark Sorensen, who noted numerous benefits to his idea of making the agendas available seven days in advance of the corresponding meetings. By state law, under the Ralph M. Brown Act, the agendas must be posted at least 72 hours in advance.

Sorensen acknowledged the city is meeting that obligation, but he noted that in many cases the posting is occurring on Friday afternoon, giving the public and the council only a couple of business days to absorb what is sometimes complicated material. Moreover, if Monday is a holiday, that means the public has only one business day to get familiar with the info.

It’s that one- to three-day tight timeline, he said, that he’s found as the biggest obstacle to folks becoming informed, engaged and involved in city affairs. Additional notice is needed for the public to thoroughly read the material and to have sufficient time to communicate with council members, ask questions of city staff, and then draft a written response before the meeting, Sorensen said.

“It really should be the public interest driving this process,” he said, referring to the noticing procedure.

Schwab was the first to agree that Sorensen’s plan would benefit the public, and she noted that under former City Manager Greg Jones the agendas were posted by noon on Wednesdays.

Councilman Bob Evans threw in his support, too, noting that the “governmentese” in the documents is difficult to digest for council members as well.

City Clerk Debbie Presson, who puts out the agendas after a process that includes City Manager Dave Burkland taking in reports from staff, said she and Burkland have talked about what it would take to accommodate Sorensen’s request.

“It’s doable with the process we have in place, but the deadlines will have to be met,” she said.

Councilman Scott Gruendl pointed out that Jones factored the meeting of deadlines by city staff into their annual performance evaluations, and he suggested that the council could do the same of Burkland.

Three members of the public who spoke on the item agreed a change would benefit the community. With Councilman Andy Holcombe absent, the remaining council members all voted in favor of placing a potential policy amendment as an action item on a future agenda.

Earlier in the meeting the panel voted unanimously (Holcombe excluded) to approve the labor contract between the city and the Chico Police Officers’ Association. Though the CPOA did not concede to a 5 percent salary reduction, as did a majority of the city’s other bargaining groups, the union made other concessions resulting in a savings of more than $500,000 annually to the city.

The approval this week marked the end of an eight-month negotiations process, noted Teresa Campbell, the city’s human-resources and risk-management director.

CPOA and the city were at a stalemate as of January. That’s when the two sides met with a state mediator, who helped forge a tentative agreement by the end of that month.

When considering the contract, Evans expressed concerns that the city cannot implement further concessions. He pointed out that the city is still facing extremely volatile times, economically.

“My thought is if we’re locked in, that’s not a good time to do this,” he said.

Burkland acknowledged the instability of the market. He called the deal a trade-off, saying that the city gets predictability in return. He also noted that the city had established a two-year spending plan, meaning the union’s contract (which is good through 2012) has been factored into it.

A couple of members of the public also expressed concerns about the contract. Chicoan Juanita Sumner told the panel the concessions will mean little because of the overtime it still allows. Without naming specific employees, she listed the base and gross salaries of several officers, pointing out how many actually make an additional $30,000 or more each year when overtime pay is factored in.

“That will continue under this contract and it’s what is bankrupting this city,” she said.

Sgt. Greg Keeney, CPOA’s president, responded to several of the concerns. In regard to overtime, he said the issue is unavoidable because the department is understaffed.