More consultation, fewer consultants

Dr. Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and department chairman who contributes regularly to the Chico News & Review.

When I wrote in this column Sept. 20 about the secret creation of the Chico firefighters’ new five-year contract that the City Council subsequently passed as a consent agenda item on July 17, I lacked space to note that the state Brown (open meeting) Act gives the council the legal right, but not the obligation, to go into secret session to discuss labor negotiations.

Letting the public know periodically the positions of the two sides as negotiations proceed ("sunshining") could head off most of the excessive largess that is driving the city toward bankruptcy. Just knowing the opposing positions would excite public interest, just as it always does when the city schools—the Brown Act also applies to schools—reveal the teachers’ union demands.

Lifting the contract from the consent agenda, by a councilmember or a citizen, would have opened it to a public discussion and a firestorm of criticism about the union’s biggest score: agreement by the city to pay $250 per month per firefighter into a new post-retirement health-care trust fund managed by the union. The present police contract already provides for such a trust fund.

The latest city budget figures show public safety (police and fire) using 73 percent of the city budget, up from 71 percent last year, meaning total personnel costs now stand at 82 percent, thus outpacing last year’s projections by 2 percent.

Clearly, the City Council needs to take an openness tack in forging the upcoming police contract, but my guess is it will be business as usual. The council will mollycoddle the police union, using Other People’s Money, with unknown goodies for another five years, taking us ever closer to the $112 million deficit doomsday.

Any new openness effort by the council should include keeping tabs on what the city spends for consultants, which former Councilman Dan Herbert said is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The city finance chief says such information is not available because the city’s accounting system does not “suggest” tracking consulting expenses, and finding the figures would involve extensive research.

Indeed, an accounting change to track these costs would be much in the public interest. Too many times, in my view, consultants are used for work that city staff is paid to do. It also seems outside lawyers are often involved in actual or threatened litigation, and Chico could effect a big savings by abolishing the city attorney’s office and assigning the legal work to suitable lawyers.

One consultant Chico really does need is someone who can show where and how to carve the fat out of the police and fire empires.