THE UNIQUE ROLE OF A CALIFORNIA CITY COUNCIL
From the Publisher Clif Smith
Beverly Hills is a California “general law” city. That means that the rules and laws we operate under are mainly prescribed in the California Government Code. “General law” cities predominate in California, especially with smaller cities.
The other form of city government in California is a “charter city,” like Los Angeles, which has much greater local authority and power to change the way it governs itself. Most cities can do quite well with the simpler but more detailed rules of a “general law” city. (Bell suffered those huge salary and pension disasters because it converted from a “general law” to “charter” city—general law cities cannot pay what Bell paid.)
Beverly Hills operates under the “elected council/city manager” form of government. That means that the council hires a city manager who then operates the City. For those versed in corporate governance, just exactly what does that mean?
Is the city council a “board of directors” that sets broad policies to be implemented by the manager? Or is the city council a panel of “managing directors” more akin to British corporate governance where the directors actually participate in the management of the entity? Is a city council just an advisory board set up to rubber-stamp whatever the city manager and his/her staff comes up with from time to time?
Is the city manager a general manager, a chief operating officer or a chief executive officer? Here, as in most California cities, it all depends.
As we contemplate our new City Council, which after all is just like the last one except for one change—Nancy Krasne replaces Barry Brucker—how should we view our council and City government? What expectations are reasonable? What is the role of each council member? Of what significance is the position of “mayor” or “vice mayor”?
This election turned on three major issues: the Metro subway tunnel under Beverly Hills High School, public pay and pensions, and transparency in government. The Courier for two years has promoted reforming our local government to bring pay and pensions to a sustainable and fair level and to impose true transparency. Supporting those positions have been our new Mayor John Mirisch and new Vice Mayor Lili Bosse. Whenever specific votes arose, in general their two votes were outvoted by councilmembers Willie Brien, Barry Brucker and Julian Gold. Now, with Krasne replacing Brucker, we see a real possibility of reform.
We believe the people elect councilmembers to represent us, not the City staff or “regional interests.” This new council reflects the decision of the people to elect representatives to represent us. That means the people insist on being involved. That, of course, annoys the paid City staff. It’s common operating procedure is to develop everything on its own, keep most of the elected officials in the dark, definitely keep the people in the dark, then spring decisions on the council at the last second and get an “OK” before anyone wakes up.
That is precisely what Mirisch, Bosse and Krasne oppose. Each has had this done to them time and again during their previous service on the council. Each pledges to stop this. In most cases, it took intervention by The Courier to get the facts out—most often through aggressive use of the California Public Records Act. That should never have been necessary, but it was. For this, this newspaper was assaulted in this election by tens of thousands of dollars of hate mail and personal attacks. Note in hindsight, not one fact we reported was ever contradicted or disproved. In truth, the more that came out the more our reporting was confirmed.
Getting down to specifics, “open government” means sharing key contract negotiations with the people, retaining emails, prohibiting city staff from deleting emails, and making sure that the people are consulted not blindsided.
So now we have a council majority committed to the three issues: stopping the Metro subway under Beverly High, making public pay and pensions fair and sustainable, and imposing transparency on City Hall. We hope that councilmembers Brien and Gold will join them, but we suspect they will now become the “2” in “3-2” votes. So be it.
Despite the best of intentions, it will not be easy for a reform majority to see its reforms implemented. We expect delaying actions, “hide the ball” tactics from the City staff, public and private gossip and carping aimed at undermining reform efforts, and all the tricks used by bureaucrats everywhere to protect their own and keep the people at arm’s length. One of the most effective is to manipulate the information provided to the council in connection with a particular vote. We witnessed direct misrepresentation when it came to recent water rate hikes. Previously, we saw parking rate hikes never OK’d by the council placed on a resolution for then-Mayor Nancy Krasne to sign. She caught it and refused. But these are not isolated cases.
We would truly welcome an honest change of heart in City Hall—one that recognizes that the people of Beverly Hills will be heard and will participate in their own government. City staff is not an army of occupation living off the land, with the citizen’s main role to pay. New Mayor John Mirisch won election overwhelmingly on the pledge that government “stop treating the people like and ATM machine.” We know Bosse and Krasne share that commitment.
Beverly Hills City employees are paid extraordinarily well and are not overworked by any rational measure. They are paid between 150 – 200 percent of the private sector, enjoy time off, health care and pension benefits few in this country enjoy. Most receive “every other Monday or Friday off” and even the highly paid executives get overtime pay or its euphemistically-named “ad-ministrative leave.” So, we see no reason whatsoever for them to gripe.
We also believe that non-public safety staff numbers can be cut by 20–25 percent and many kinds of jobs outsourced to the private sector. “Outsourcing” is a dirty word for unions, but just why should the people pay retirement benefits in the millions of dollars each for services that can be obtained for a fraction of the cost?
These are the kinds of decisions that Mirisch, Bosse and Krasne will need to make. They will likely be limited severely by the fact that they will rely—to start with—on city staff to gather facts. The new council majority must be on guard against rigged information to generate the result staff wants—it’s how the game is played. With these three veteran councilmembers leading the reform, our bureaucrats may have met their match.
We’ll see. As for fairness, who wouldn’t like to work somewhere for 20-30 years or so with 13 weeks off every year and a retirement package in the millions of dollars?