(Originally published in the Alameda Sun March 22, 2013)
A dark cloud is hovering over the City’s Sunshine Ordinance.
Consider the following recommendations made by staff to City Council in the last year:
- To support surrendering 74 acres of land at Alameda Point to the U.S. Navy and excusing the V.A. from creating a wildlife refuge on the site.
- To approve four-year contracts with the public safety unions that will add $2.6 million to the general fund deficit.
- To adopt a new Housing Element that authorizes 2,306 units of multi-family housing banned by Measure A.
All three of these recommendations involved controversial issues. And in all three cases, the public complained that staff had not provided sufficient information about the proposed action, the reasons for it, and its implications. Yet, each time, Council declined to postpone a vote to allow further disclosure and debate.
This is a sensitive subject for City staff. Few will forget how city manager John Russo ripped then-Councilmember Doug deHaan for questioning the notice provided about the Housing Element proposal. And at Council’s last meeting, city attorney Janet Kern bristled when Councilmember Stewart Chen passed along constituent concerns about the clarity of the Alameda Point agenda item.
Here’s the language she was talking about:
Recommendation to (1) Authorize the City Manager to Execute a Letter of Support to the United States Navy for Modification to the Surplus Determination of Land at the Former Naval Air Station Alameda; (2) Approve a Non-Binding Term Sheet between the United States Department of Veterans Affairs and the City of Alameda in Substantial Conformance with the Proposed Term Sheet
Maybe the cognoscenti could discern that this language meant that Council was being asked to endorse a deal re-drawing the map and re-writing the community reuse plan for Alameda Point. But not everybody is so well-versed in bureaucratese. And this is not the only recent example of agenda language only a lawyer could love. Take this item:
Adopt a Resolution Approving the 2007-2014 Housing Element of the City of Alameda General Plan and Amending the General Plan Land Use Diagram for Three Properties to Ensure Internal Consistency Between the Housing Element and Land Use Element of the General Plan, and Introduce an Ordinance to Amend the Alameda Municipal Code Section 30 Development Regulations Pertaining to the Regulation of Housing Development
This language accurately described the resolution on the table. But it did not give any clue that, by adopting that resolution, Council would be overriding Measure A in order to satisfy the City’s quota for low-income housing.
According to Ms. Kern, an agenda item is only the “headline”; the staff report supplies the real meat. But a headline is supposed to entice readers, not befuddle them. And the staff report sometimes is no more enlightening than the agenda item. Try searching for “Measure A” in the 12-page staff report on the Housing Element and see what you get.
A more serious issue arises when staff drops additional arguments for its recommendation on the public after the staff report is published. This is what happened with the public safety contracts. With a little effort and an Excel program, one could figure out the financial impact of the contracts from the staff report. But that turned out to be time wasted, because staff’s defense for increasing the deficit ended up relying on a rationale that the staff report didn’t even mention.
On the Friday before the Tuesday Council meeting, city manager Russo released a memorandum describing a “grievance” asserted by the firefighters’ union back in October 2009. According to the memorandum, not only was this “grievance” a slam-dunk loser for the City, it was worth at least $7 million. But not to worry: if Council approved the new four-year contracts, the union would agree to forego its rock-solid multi-million-dollar claim.
That became the heart of the pitch Mr. Russo gave to Council, which approved the contracts. Only Councilmember deHaan asked about the validity and valuation of the newly revealed grievance. The rest took staff at its word.
The Mayor can pat her administration on the back all she wants, as she did in her State of the City speech, for its success in avoiding complaints for violating the Sunshine Ordinance. But this is just empty praise until the politicians and bureaucrats understand that it’s not the number of meetings or the precision of the legalese that counts, but the quality of the information.