Having expressed dissatisfaction with the work of city staff and a paid consultant, the Pinole City Council on Monday night approved official wording for a ballot measure that will ask voters to renew a utility tax.
Then the consultant resigned abruptly, despite having three months left on a contract.
Working with the advice of consultant The Lew Edwards Group, city staff had presented proposed ballot language at a June 17 meeting. Council members critiqued it as too wordy and confusing, and ordered a special meeting for Tuesday to write an alternative. At the June 17 meeting, council members also had questioned the value of the consultant's work.
With a new draft from city staff, the council edited and approved a simpler version of the measure on Tuesday.
The ballot measure will ask voters in the Nov. 6 election to renew an 8 percent tax on phone, gas and electricity bills for another eight years. The tax, which provides about 20 percent of the general fund budget, is due to expire at the end of 2012. Without the renewal, the city likely would cut five police officer positions, two firefighter jobs, a maintenance worker and subsidies to recreation, including the Pinole Swim Center and Cable TV.
The council unanimously approved the new ballot language, emphasizing that it should make clear that it's not a request for a new tax, that the rate will remain the same and the money will be spent locally.
Council members then turned to discuss the remaining term of the consultant contract, with Councilwoman Debbie Long asked why that issue had not been included specifically as an agenda item as the council had directed last week.
Long referred to an email from City Manager Belinda Espinosa sent to council members that indicated Espinosa's intent to terminate the contract. Councilman Roy Swearingen said that decision should be made in public view and not as an administrative action.
"We started this issue in a public forum and we should finish it in a public forum," Swearingen said.
Council members Debbie Long and Phil Green said they had understood that the contract would be on Tuesday's agenda. Green said he had no problem ending the contract but that it should have been agendized.
City Attorney Ben Reyes advised the council that the contract could be discussed, despite the fact that the fact that it wasn't listed on the agenda without violating the Brown Act, the state law that governs the conduct of open meetings. He interpreted the contract as a legitimate point of discussion because of its relation to the ballot measure itself.
Mayor Pete Murray noted that only one council member, Long, replied to Espinosa's email, indicating no majority objection to terminating the contract.
The council had agreed earlier this year to pay The Lew Edwards Group for $32,000 in advice and consultation services. Of that amount, about $10,000 remained for work to be done the remaining months before the election.
During the council discussion about the fate of the contract, Catherine Lew, president and CEO of the consulting firm, asked to speak. Although the contract terms required a 14-day notice by the city for termination, she agreed to end it on the spot.
"I welcome a transparent and robust discussion," Lew said. "I'm sorry that the council was disappointed over the quality about the ballot question testing. I stand by my professional advice.
"We do not wish by our presence to be an unnecessary distraction to the city or a point of contention between council members and the public during a period in which you should truly unite to move forward on the vision that you deem most appropriate for the city. So rather than being a participant or an observer in this debate, I'll simply exercise my right under the agreement with the city to step down and resign, effective immediately."
Edwards also mentioned that her firm had given the city a discounted rate of $3,550 per month instead of the $5,000 per month rate.
The ballot language that the council adopted reads:
"Without raising current tax rates, and to maintain a high quality of life and essential local public services to the residents of Pinole, shall an ordinance be adopted to continue the existing utility users tax of eight percent for an additional eight years, until December 31, 2020, keeping this locally generated revenue in Pinole."
Green objected that the measure does not specify to voters how the money will be spent.
"I think they should know that it is discretionary spending and there is no guarantee that it will go for what we say it's going to go for," Green said."I would like to see those local services a little better spelled out. If the people decide to vote for this, it should go for what they actually want and not what bureaucrats want."
Because the measure allocates the tax revenue for general use, it requires only a simple voter majority for approval. Measures that designate revenue for specific uses require a two-thirds majority, according to state law.
Reyes has until Aug. 9 to submit an impartial analysis of the measure to appear in the information pamphlet that the county elections department will mail to voters. Opponents and supporters of the measure face the same deadline to submit their arguments to be included in the pamphlet. If more than one argument is submitted for either side, the Pinole city clerk is charged with choosing the which one to use, Reyes said.