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Our View: Proposed city rule changes are bad idea

Posted: October 9, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: October 9, 2012 2:00 a.m.
 

An item on tonight’s Santa Clarita City Council meeting is troubling.

To understand the issue, one must understand Santa Clarita’s form of government.

When founders established this city nearly 25 years ago, they chose the council-manager structure widely favored in democracies.

Under this system, citizens elect council members who function much like the board of a business, creating a vision, setting policies, passing local ordinances and planning and executing a budget. The council members hire a city manager whose job is to administer — or carry out — their vision, much like a chief executive officer of a business.

The news media also plays a role in the successful operation of a municipal government, serving as a watchdog to keep the electorate informed.

To that end, we call citizens’ attention to the revised norms and procedures on tonight’s City Council meeting agenda. It is our concern some aspects of the revised norms and procedures tend to stifle communication, invest too much power in the city manager’s office and have a chilling effect on the media’s role in the process.

Norms and procedures outline policy and etiquette governing how council members interact with the each other, the mayor, the city staff, the public and the media.

The proposed changes that go before the council tonight were hammered out in a subcommittee meeting by Mayor Frank Ferry and Councilman Bob Kellar.

Whatever their intent, council members would be whittling away at the power voters invested in them when they were elected, handing it off to the chief administrator whom they hired, if these changes are adopted. The result is giving up some accountability.

Although the city manager is an administrator who works for the council, the proposed norms and procedures call for council members to seek their subordinate’s approval in a number of ways.

Under the proposed changes, “Council members will provide the city manager with questions that will be asked publicly or during the council meeting regarding specific items on the agenda. Council members should provide the questions before the council meeting so staff can be prepared to give a response.”

While speedy answers to questions are valued, these requirements would seem to have the effect of eliminating any spontaneous discussion among council members during public meetings and providing the city manager a chance to shape answers to council members’ questions from his or her perspective alone.

Another item strikes out individual council members’ option of going to department heads with specific questions, leaving them only the option of the city manager as a source “when possible.” Yet another item strikes out “staff” as being available to answer council members’ questions prior to and during council meetings, leaving only the city manager to fill that role.

The City Council, not the city manager, is elected to govern the city. If the council is not allowed to talk to city department heads or ask questions of staff members, then the council is hampered from doing its job thoroughly.

The revised norms and procedures also block a single council member from placing an item on the agenda unless a majority of the council concurs. This has the effect of empowering the majority of the council to stifle a minority voice.

It seems to us the capper in the council’s rush to hand off its power to the city manager comes with this proposed addition to the norms and procedures: “Council members shall inform the city manager or the communications manager of any interview or comments made to the media about city projects or issues.”

This clearly has a chilling effect on council members’ First Amendment rights to talk to the media and, through the media, to their constituents. It hampers the news media from fulfilling its role of council watchdog.

We urge council members to take another look at the long-term effects of these proposed changes.

To be sure, there is much to like in the proposal: a clarification of subcommittees’ roles and closer compliance of city policy with the state Fair Political Practices Commission policy, to name two.

But the items consolidating council power with the city manager, quashing communication and isolating council members from its public must be reconsidered.

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