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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Analysis: Asmundson's Attack on the Mayor Unfounded

The notion of civility was floated by Don Saylor in his Op-ed a few weeks ago. At the time, I pointed out in this space that Saylor was very quick to complain about incivility when he was on the receiving end, but he never ever said a word when it was either he or one of his council majority colleagues who were being uncivil.

Tonight the Human Relations Commission at 6:30 pm outside of council chambers will take up this issue at the behest of chair John Dixon. I am not certain how this relates to the charge of that commission, but it is quite apparent that for whatever reason Dixon is carrying the water on this for the council majority.

One thing that strikes me is the thin skin of some of the members of the council majority who at times have found insults and incivility where it was not intended or at least would have been better left unsaid. At the meeting last week we have such a case. Mayor Sue Greenwald at several points in the meetings expressed strongly her dissatisfaction with the length of the agenda, fearing that the meeting would go well into the night--and it did. City Manager Bill Emlen was insistent throughout that the length of the meeting was necessary. At no point did the members of the council majority disagree with the city manager.

Finally at nearly midnight, the mayor complained in a brief statement about the length of the meetings and accused the council majority of insisting these late meetings by limiting the number of nights that the council would meet. While Asmundson, Souza and Saylor took umbrage at this accusation, back in August and September, it was in fact, the express desire of the city council to limit the number of nights that they would meet. Souza in particular complained that he had never made such statements, however, he did approve of the meeting schedule that was set last summer that included fewer meetings on the long range Calendar. This was chiefly Councilmember Saylor that pushed that through, but Souza went along with it.

Sue Greenwald stated:
The public does not like meetings that go past 11:30 and I don't think we can make good decisions past 11:30 and yet the council majority has been consistently insisting that we have fewer meetings and that they run longer and the council majority is also has also been to be frank about it been going on and on and on with detailed questions... But the public doesn't like it when the meetings go to late and I'm trying as mayor to do a reasonable job in pacing out meetings so that they can be over by 11:30 and the council majority is insisting that they go on until all hours of the morning.
This prompted a very angry response from Ruth Asmundson.

I'm sorry the council is not insisting it's just unfortunate that the mayor cannot run the meeting more efficiently... If we have a more efficient meeting then we can finish all these things.
Asmundson's charge led to a lengthy exchange in which heated words were said in all directions. The situation deteriorated at this point and I think needlessly so.

What I found most stunning about Asmundson's complaint that Mayor Greenwald did not run a more efficient meeting is that Greenwald had been consistently throughout that evening attempting to move the process along--pleas that for the most part went unheeded by any of the councilmembers--and that the vast majority of time was spent by the council majority and not the mayor.

This prompted me to do an analysis of how this meeting was spent.

I went back through the recording of the meeting and examined and computed the length of time that each council member took with their questions and with their comments and motions. Included in the respective councilmember's time is the amount of time a staff member spends answering their questions; however staff reports are not counted. I counted staff response to direct questions since this is part of the time being taken on each item that a particular member has control of.

I will also note that four consent items were pulled--two by Saylor that Souza wanted to pull as well, one by Asmundson and one by Heystek. The mayor did not pull any items.

Here is the total time spent on the consent items and then Items 5 through Item 8 at which point the dispute occurred.











As you can see, Greenwald probably was least responsible for the length of the meeting as she spent by far the least amount of time speaking during the meeting. Saylor and Asmundson were the most egregious in terms of their time usage. Both of them spent a considerable amount of time on the conflict of interest item.

In watching the replay of the meeting, there are three key things that used up a tremendous amount of time.

First, there was 30 minutes of public comment during the agenda item on Rancho Yolo.

Second, the Rancho Yolo agenda item was extremely complex requiring a number of different motions to approve and tease out the staff recommendations. That used up a tremendous amount of time.

Third, and this one is the one most attributable to a member of the council, Councilmember Saylor made a number of motions on the issue of conflicts of interest that cause that process to drag on much longer than it would have had they simply approved the staff recommendation.

None of these factors are attributable to the ability of Greenwald to effectively run a council meeting. Had the Mayor tried to interfere, the council majority would have given her a strong rebuke and rightly so.

Moreover, none of this should infer that any of these things should not have occurred or that councilmembers ought to speak less. I think the council needs to properly deliberate, my complaint would be simply that the agenda was too long and the items too complex to have as many items as they did.

Asmundson's complaint is simply not borne out by the facts as I compute them. The meeting did not go too long because the Mayor did not run an efficient meeting, the meeting went on too long because there were too many items and they were complex items and councilmembers took their time to deliberate.

The Mayor certainly at times does not run the most efficient meetings. At other times the Mayor is indeed combative. However, this attack upon the Mayor as being an inept presiding officer or taking up too much of council time is in this case simply inaccurate. The Mayor has had her good days and she has her bad days, but the criticism from the "Gang of Three" is unfair.

My reading of the council rules suggests that the Mayor should play a much larger role in the creation of the agenda than she has.

As I suggested in a blog entry last week, it would appear the presiding officer under Rosenberg's Rules would have much greater latitude:
"The presiding officer is responsible for preparing the agenda and order of the meeting, conducting the meeting and maintaining order."
If the Council Ground Rules is the authorizing document, the presiding officer would be responsible for preparing the agenda. There may be a more fleshed out version however that more fully explains this power. But using this right now as the document, I do not think the city manager is in compliance.

In practice it seems that the mayor does not have the power to agendize items at her discretion. This is in part a function of the city manager model. It is also in part a function of this being a minority mayor. However, at least according to the ground rules, this is not a formal arrangement of power.

Regardless, if Councilmember Saylor is truly interested in civility, he needs to take charge and admonish his allies, not just his perceived adversaries. I do not see that occurring, which is why his plea looks more like a political tool than anything intended to create meaningful and more civil dialogue in community discourse.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting