The Issues: Can City Hall Be More Transparent?

Candidates running in the June 7 Hercules City Council election answer questions posed by Hercules Patch with input from readers: Open government

In light of public concern over closed session City Council meetings, City Council votes on consent calendar items with no public discussion, unrecorded subcommittee meeting minutes, what should be done to ensure Hercules government dealings are open and transparent?

Don Kuehne

All City Council, commission, and subcommittee meetings should be open to the public and have recorded meeting minutes. The only items that can be discussed in closed session are those pertaining to litigation, contract negotiations, and personnel matters. I was concerned about the lack of minutes for subcommittee meetings my first year on the Council.  When I raised this issue with the City Manager, he said that staff did not have time to do minutes and any change in policy would require Council approval.

Virgil de la Vega

  • Minutes should be taken even for subcommittee meetings.  Videos should be posted and made available to public.
  • Contract exceeding certain amounts should be in the public meeting section and not on consent calendar.
  • City should use or expand its usage of technological open government solutions such as the city’s website and more focused web pages showing the city’s expenditures such as “Where Your Taxes Go”.
  • City should continue using independent and inquiring press (printed or online) such as Hercules Patch and West County Contra Costa Times.  The press has been found to be a strong guarantor of transparency.

Sherry McCoy

The City Council needs to implement several things to ensure dealings are open and transparent. The implementation of clear and closely followed Sunshine Laws would be the first step in this process. More specifically, the City Council needs to limit to closed session only items that belong in closed session. The public needs to be fully informed of closed session activities as required by law. Consent calendar items should be limited. Contracts, agreements, and other encumbrances over a specific amount should be not allowed as consent items but rather provide an opportunity for discussion and input from the community. All subcommittee meetings should have minutes and allow for, at a minimum, attendance by representatives of the community and media.

As with many areas, the trust of the community is what has been broken and needs to be reestablished. This will only happen over time and with clear actions by the City Council and City Manager that all dealings are open and transparent. 

In my understanding of city government and the long hours required to address issues,  I understand that there is not always enough time to discuss every city issue.  Hercules is not unique in its use of closed-door sessions to discuss a variety of consent items. However, there must be community approved guidelines for how such items are handled. As a start, I would push for the guidelines to include community presentation and discussion on any item that exceeds $75,000 and/or affects our entire community.  Any item that removes a vital city service should also be discussed and voted on openly in city council meetings.

As a City Council member, I would like to believe that we all will establish ourselves as trusted representatives, but until we get back to that point, we need to take steps to increase our visibility as a council. 

Has not responded to questionnaire as of May 6. 

Under the Brown Act, closed session council meetings are solely for the purpose of discussing personnel matters, real estate negotiations and possible litigation.  The City manager maneuvered non-covered items to closed session as "potential litigation", which was a clear misuse of closed session, possibly designed to cover City mismanagement.  That process will stop with a change in Administration and Council. The City attorney turned a blind eye to these issues and instead of representing the City, he acted as the City manager's personal council.

The Consent Calendar at every Council meeting should be accompanied by a staff report, available to the community, which states all the relevant facts, including any recommendations from hearings and subcommittee meetings.  All Council actions, including subcommittee meetings should be recorded and written minutes made available to the citizens in a timely manner. 

Also, financial matters over $50 thousand dollars should not be included on the consent calendar, but should always be subject to a public hearing.

We, the citizens of Hercules, need to know how Council decisions are made, who is making them, and the reasons supporting any recommendations. With quality staff at the highest levels of City government, in addition to effective oversight by City Council, these problems can be easily prevented.

Closed sessions are meant to talk about personnel (evaluation, concerns), real estate and legal matters. Everything else has to be part of a Consent Calendar or a Public Hearing session.

Many items were inappropriately discussed and decided upon in closed sessions, including the “scientific survey” in 2010 made to influence the residents’ opinion on the Waterfront project.

Consent Calendar sessions were used as a way to keep the Public out of the discussion. This is a typical Brown act violation, but also the main source of the problems we are facing today. Example: the Sycamore North project was approved unanimously in a 2-minute Consent Calendar session June the 9, 2009.

http://www.youtube.com/WaterfrontWatch#p/u/27/EB3JxPNIBc8 Watching this video makes me sick.

  • Why would a City Council approve such an expensive project that should have been privately developed? What was the idea behind becoming a developer?
  • Why did our City did not have Rules of Governance able to regulate and oversee interactions between the Planning Commission, the Finance department, the Council, the City manager and the City attorney?
  • The previous City Council made sure they pushed their agenda in finance committee and once pre-approved there, they felt entitled to put the resolution in the Consent Calendar, making big deals routine items.
  • Why did our City Attorney never challenge or reject such practices?

The only way to establish an open and transparent government is to share information with residents and listen. Share, not brainwash them. I will suggest any expense over $25,000 should be part of a public hearing. I believe we need a regular report on the state of our finances (both City and RDA agencies). All commissions meeting must be audio-video recorded.

Joanne Ward

In order to ensure that Hercules government dealings are open and transparent, it is imperative that minutes be taken at all subcommittee meetings. This practice of recording subcommittee minutes is already beginning to be implemented. Also, there has been an increase in the number of speakers wanting to comment on consent calendar items at the regular City Council meetings. This public discussion is extremely helpful to ensure that the Hercules City Council votes on these consent calendar items in a manner which truly reflects the will of the people of Hercules as represented by those in attendance at the City Council meetings.

Glenn Abraham May 06, 2011 at 08:11 PM
Good ideas from everyone, especially Joanne Ward's suggestion about public speakers. Too bad that she and Don Kuehne didn't implement those good ideas over the last several years.


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