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Thursday, April 19, 2007

City Power Vested Strongly in Unelected Public Officials Harms Democracy

Towards the beginning of Tuesday evening's Davis City Council meeting, Mayor Sue Greenwald made note that City Manager Bill Emlen had produced a long agenda and done so over her objections. It was another potentially explosive situation on the City Council however Bill Emlen diffused it somewhat by suggesting that he felt it was necessary to cover these items at this time and that he took full responsibility for any length of the meeting.

Whether the mayor or the city manager was correct in this exchange, one of the important things that this incident reveals is where the power resides--and it is not with an elected official such as the Mayor. Rather it is the unelected City Manager.

A few weeks ago, the issue arose where the question was asked who had the power to write the agenda. My understanding is that the procedure is generally for the city manager to write the agenda in consultation with the mayor. In practice however it seems that the city manager writes the agenda and anytime he and the mayor disagree, he says that this is what the council majority wants.

At times it is not even clear that the city manager was getting his direction from the council majority. For example there was a long range budget workshop. The mayor wanted this workshop televised, as it took place in the council chambers, and yet purportedly the city manager was insistent that the council majority had wanted no television. And yet, when I actually spoke to a number of members of the council majority, they had no idea that such a decision had been made.

So what happened? It is far from clear, but it seems possible that the city manager made the decision on his own and when confronted simply assumed that the council majority would disagree.

Worse yet is that there seems that the mayor has little recourse other than to bring the issues forward in public--and if the mayor does that, she would inevitably lose more often than not.

Formally however, 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.

The question I pose though is who should really have such powers to determine the items on the agenda--the elected mayor and elected body of the city council or the unelected staff and city manager?

We see this issue arise time and time again. For example at this past meeting, there was a proclamation to award PG&E recognition for their generous $10,000 contribution to the Street Smarts program. The proclamation read signed by Mayor Sue Greenwald. And yet in actuality, it was written by a member of the staff who obtained an agreement with PG&E in order to secure their donation. Did council have a say in this matter? No.

At the recent swearing in ceremony of the new police Chief Landy Black, we saw the city manager rather than the Mayor conduct the ceremony. A number of people who witnessed this event asked why the city manager was doing this? It is a small issue to be sure, but it is illustrative of just who has the power. Generally ceremonial tasks such as these, even in a weak mayoral system, fall to elected officials rather than city staff. That's part of the few actual powers that the mayor ought to have in such a system. I've never seen a city manager perform such tasks.

As I have mentioned on this blog many times, I also think it is problematic that the city council does not have their own staff. This means they must rely on the guidance and counsel of staff that has no direct ties or loyalty to them. This too becomes very problematic at times, especially for members who are in the minority on council.

There have also been several points when city staff has failed to properly advise and council the mayor and city council on public matters. Two such incidents come to mind--again both of these in and of themselves are minor things, but they are illustrative of the broader issue and problem.

At the Police Chief Landy Black swearing-in ceremony, the Mayor made some introductions of elected officials--which is a traditional courtesy at such public events. However, the mayor herself had to walk around and figure out who was there. This was clearly a job that staff should have done. This should have fallen to deputy city manager Kelly Stachowicz who was in attendance. Moreover, there were six visiting police chiefs from other jurisdictions at this event and no one informed the mayor so that she could introduce them on behalf of the city. This is staff's job. The mayor was not properly staffed. An elected official cannot be responsible for figuring out who is in attendance, that is what staff is there for. The staff should have ensured that these dignitaries were properly recognized officially by the city.

On a related note at the recent city council meeting this past Tuesday evening, the new Police Chief Landy Black was in attendance for the first time, officially as the Police Chief. Yet, somehow staff did not think to let the Mayor know that she ought to formally introduce him to the community as Police Chief. Moreover, not one councilmember thought to introduce Chief Black to the community at the meeting.

These types of errors are minor, but they are a bit embarrassing for the city.

This leads me back to my concern about ability for councilmembers to place items on the agenda. Councilmembers can request items on the agenda. The council can actually prevent these items from coming on the agenda. Informally so too can the city manager. What this means is that those in the council minority do not have the full ability to agendize items with staff support and preparation. Often they have had to place items on as city councilmember items--which means they must prepare and staff themselves. A portion of the Davis community who voted for these members is essentially somewhat disenfranchised because their elected representatives lack the ability to place items on the agenda.

While I understand that cities the size of Davis invariably use a city manager model of government which is a very weak mayoral system. It seems that more power is vested with staff than most cities I have seen. It seems that the mayor has very little power to create an agenda and even under the council handbook listed on the city's webpage, the Mayor ought to have more power to do so. Unfortunately, as a member of the council minority, it seems that the Mayor has little recourse other than to make a statement in public acknowledging her dissatisfaction with the current arrangement.

My question remains who should have the power, the elected council or the unelected staff? My position remains that wherever possible, the elected council who must face the voters should retain the power and direct staff to achieve their ends. Perhaps this is what is happening, but if it is, it is not happening in the public light and that is where these decisions need to take place.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting