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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Mayor's New Policies: Cutting Off Debate

If there is one good thing that has come of the feud at city council the other night, it is that it has allowed even on the pages of the Davis Enterprise there to be debate at least somewhat over process.

On Tuesday night, the Davis Enterprise ran an extended story on the debate.

The question for me is whether it is appropriate to cut off an elected councilmember when they are asking questions. They have set up council rules that allow the presiding officer to do this. This is something we learned when Councilmember Don Saylor read from council rules. The appropriateness of that rule in this case needs to be in questioned.

For her part, the Mayor told the Davis Enterprise:
"It seems like every meeting is so confrontational. Last Tuesday's meeting, what happened was, we were on the question part and (Greenwald) asked several questions and it was already about 12 minutes for that. If I give one (council member) five minutes, I try to allocate five minutes for the other... She was debating, she was badgering, she was, in a way, insulting the consultant."
Was the former Mayor doing that or was she simply asking tough questions on an issue that in her mind is crucial? Is there a more important issue than that of the proposed water project that figures to raise the rates of people's water bill possibly by more than $100 per month (although this figure is certain part of the debate, a debate refueled on Tuesday when Public Works Director Bob Weir's revised cost figures which seem considerable lower than what was forecast just a week ago).

Even if those new revised numbers prove to be true, the process issue still stands.

The Mayor suggests that Councilmember Greenwald had already spoken for 12 minutes. But by my count it was only eight minutes into questioning when the Mayor interjected and attempted to cut off Councilmember Greenwald.

In a moment we shall talk about whether Councilmember Greenwald lost her control during this confrontation as some have accused and also whether her comments and questions were inappropriate.

However, of bigger concern to me are these statements made by the Mayor in the Davis Enterprise article.
Asmundson said, as mayor, she has a meeting to run, and she tries to keep the council on task so residents have an opportunity to speak before 11 p.m. Council members, too, would like to get home at a reasonable time, she said.

"I'm trying to be more effective and efficient in our meeting so we can address our business," Asmundson said.

The mayor plans to ask her colleagues how they would like to see the meetings run.

"I'm hoping we can work a little more collegially on the council," Asmundson said. "They have to decide how they want me to run the meeting, so I'll be putting more on them. If there's a complaint about how I'm running the meeting, I want to ask them what they want me to do. I'm looking at what's best for Davis, not what's best for our council members."
I can actually sympathize with the Mayor on this issue. I think there are times when comments and questions unnecessarily go on too long. The problem here is that you cannot simply develop rules without flexibility, without an understanding of the difference between a big issue like the water issue and a smaller issue that does not have millions of dollars of impacts.

In the article it states that:
"Asmundson, too, expressed concerns about the cost of the projects. The estimated cost for the wastewater plant upgrade - which is required by the state - rose by about $50 million in the past six months."
I give the mayor credit for this concern as well as her concerns about the escalating salaries for public safety employees. Unfortunately, she needs to allow questioning, tough questions by her colleagues and by the public.

And that brings me to the other real concern with Mayor Asmundson's second turn as Mayor--her decision to limit public comment to 15 minutes. The question is does this really buy her anything?

During normal council meetings, you might get one or two commenters during that time period. It is rare that you have more than five people wanting to speak. When you do get more than five, that probably means there is a specific issue of concern. Asking the public to come back after the meeting seems inappropriate.

Several letters to the editor in the Davis Enterprise have appeared on this topic.

On July 22, 2008, the Mayor on the vital issue of housing cut off both council comments, holding each councilmember to seven minutes. And then she limited the public to only 15 minutes. On this occasion members of the public came up and spoke for a minute or two on an issue that will decide the city's future.

As a result of only allowing 15 minutes of comment following the report on the Housing Element Steering Committee, several citizens came to the regular public comment and complained about the general policy to limit public comment.

Jean Jackman:
"I am at, Mayor, your new policy of only having fifteen minutes of public comment before the meeting starts. It's not Democratic. It shuts down opposition. It shuts down good ideas, I get inspired by listening to public comment from people. It shows lack of flexibility and you are doing a great disservice to the citizens who want to participate in government and their sense of empowerment. You wonder why people don't sign up to be on commissions, well when you give them fifteen minutes public comment for all the issues, it really shows that you are not interested in what people have to say. I really urge you to get the citizens involved and not belittle us by allowing only fifteen minutes of public comment."
Others like Eileen Samitz also complained about the early hour of such a hearing.
“Also the scheduling of these issues… to have a controversial issue like the general plan update, which was affecting the entire community, to schedule it at 5:00, when people like myself have to take off from work to get here… This is not what our city is about. Davis is supposed to be a model of democracy.”
The Mayor's response to those complaints:
“Let me just talk a little about the public comment… At first this was supposed to be just a workshop. But we decided to put 15 minutes for those to speak that couldn’t make it to public comment at the regular meeting. If there are needs to have more discussion we’ll have it at the end. What I’m trying to do here is trying to juggle conflicting demands. Some council members don’t want to have too long meetings. Some council members don’t want to have that many meetings. But we are trying to make sure that we are having a healthy public engagement. And we’re going to be looking into how we can do that. The fifteen minute rule, if we have to go on, we have business to take care of. The council met at five o’clock, we have other business to do. I wanted to make sure council had an opportunity to have dinner before too long. And so that’s why the fifteen minutes.”
Councilmember Lamar Heystek asked for a future meeting to discuss some of the operating procedures. He was concerned about council communications being so late in the hour under the new policies.

Councilmember Sue Greenwald also disagreed with the new policy limiting public comment to fifteen minutes.
“I share the concerns that a number of the members of the public had. For example, when you said that initially you were going to have a workshop without any public comment, we always, when we discuss any item, have always had public comment. It’s been understood that it is not something that is at the discretion of the mayor.”
She continued:
“I personally feel that limiting public comment is a huge mistake in terms of time. There’s been very few times when public comment really is very long. And when it does, it’s usually because there is a room full of young children who want to keep a hockey rink open or something. And you’re not going to want to cut them off. I guarantee you. And it’s going to look very bad when you let them talk for a half an hour but you haven’t let other citizens talk for over fifteen minutes. It will look arbitrary and capricious.”
Back to the water issue. Councilmember Sue Greenwald following the incident told me that if she did not make an issue of the incident, no one would be talking about the issue or the process. Both of which are vitally important.

Former Councilmember Stan Forbes raised the issue itself in a letter to the Davis Enterprise yesterday:
"How it would be financed is a question about borrowing money. More significant to Davis citizens is how it is going to be repaid or, in other words, what is this going to cost me? I don't suggest I have the precise answer. But I do know that based on mortgage amortization tables, $450 million at 6 percent over 30 years has an annual payment of approximately $32.4 million, or about $500 for every man woman and child now in Davis. Every year. For the next 30 years. Plus the surface water.

Given this cost, I offer my thanks to Council member Sue Greenwald for asking hard questions. We can't avoid upgrading the treatment plant. But it would seem to me that a serious discussion of water conservation measures ought to have as much or more priority for the council as how to finance such a project. Conservation often costs much less than increasing supply."
This gets us back to the original issue of Mayor Asmundson cutting off Councilmember Greenwald's line of questioning.

Were Sue Greenwald's questions out of line? Did Mayor Asmundson inappropriately cut the Councilmember off? Did the Councilmember lose her cool? You decide. Here is a video clip of the incident. It includes the final three minutes of Councilmember Greenwald's eight minutes of questioning. It includes the Mayor cutting her off. It includes the recess. It includes Don Saylor reading from the rules. It does not include Sue Greenwald requesting to resume her questions and Mayor Asmundson ignoring those requests.

You decide for yourself. For me, process is as important if not more important than actual substance. There was a time during the last session when as Mayor, Sue Greenwald cut off Stephen Souza from asking questions. It was inappropriate. I did not agree with what Mr. Souza had to say, but I defend his right to say it. He was an elected official and deserved to ask his questions. I feel the same way about Sue Greenwald. And there are times when she crosses the line.

More and more I do not feel that she crossed this line on this issue. I think it was completely inappropriate to cut off debate. I think it is completely inappropriate to limit council questions for the sake of expediency and getting home early. Do not pack the council meetings with some many items. Lack of adequate discussion means poor decision making. I fear this simply means that the council will decide in advance what they are going to do and make the public deliberative process a formality with the decision already having been made. That is not the way to run open meetings, to have open government, and to run a democracy.

I believe that Mayor Asmundson is a decent person. I think her heart is in the right place even as I disagree with her on some policy issues, but I think she is making a big mistake and doing it here for the wrong reasons. The public needs to make her aware of how they feel on this issue if they want change to occur.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting