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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sunshine Week: Council Majority Refuses To Broadcast Long-Range Financial Planning Workshop

Last week, as we mentioned in yesterday’s blog entry, the City of Davis passed a proclamation naming this week “Sunshine Week.” So it is with great irony that the council this week has chosen to have a joint meeting between the City Council and the Finance and Budget Commission without television broadcasting despite the availability of broadcasting equipment and the fact that this meeting was held at what would be a normal meeting time for the city council. Moreover this meeting which discussed the “Long-Range Financial Planning Workshop” met immediately after another workshop on the short-term Calendar which was broadcast on television.

Mayor Greenwald in both the televised and untelevised meetings complained about the lack of broadcasting for the long range planning meeting. The suggestion was that this was a decision made by City Manager Bill Emlen at the behest of the council majority of Stephen Souza, Ruth Asmundson, and Don Saylor. The council majority insisted that this meeting be held without television broadcast.

This leads to a question as to why this occurred. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, should be the value of the concept of transparency of government deliberation and government action. The full value of "Sunshine" is the ability of the public to view and scrutinize the actions of their elected officials. The topic of long-range financial planning is extremely valuable in its own right and the public should be as informed as possible about the planning, goals, and concerns of its elected officials.

This is a very important issue—long term financial planning. And yet, there were no non-staff and non-media members of the public at this meeting. As one of the members of the commission said, if your goal is long term stability and you want the public informed about it, then you need to bring light to the process.

Ironically one of the topics of conversations by both the members of the commission as well as the members of council was whether future meetings of the Finance and Budget Commission ought to be televised. This was mentioned even by members of the City Council who were part of the decision not to televise this particular meeting.

While in the end, there were no major bombshells at this meeting that ought to have necessitated either a directive to broadcast or not broadcast the meeting—that was the point. If you want public involvement in these meetings they have to be made accessible.

While public participation will likely remain an illusory goal the point is not to become an impediment to that participation but rather to facilitate it. As we saw with some of the problems facing the short-term economic workshop, the city is going to have to look long and hard about sources for revenue.

One key contributor to the budget shortfall hearkens back to the $700,000-plus revenue shortfall from fines collected from traffic and parking violations. The city has taken up huge capital upgrades in parking enforcement and traffic light enforcement. In addition they increased parking fines from $30 to $35, the expectation was that would lead to increased profit, instead it led to a huge budget shortfall as we have discussed in previous entries.

These types of decision are very concerning because they are the direct result of a number of poorly managed ideas. The unanswered question is now whether those capital improvements ended up costing the city a tremendous amount of revenue aside from the philosophical problem of relying once again upon violation of the law as a source of revenue.

This is clearly an issue that needs to be examined in both the short and long term. Frankly in the private sector, heads would roll over a $700,000 budget shortfall stemming from those types of decisions. In Davis City government it seems almost business as usual.

But it is with these sorts of discussions and decisions that the public ought to be involved in the process and the commission and council should be actively engaging the public in that discussion rather than discouraging it by refusing to televise it—for apparently no good reason.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting