(7/30/10) Editorial – Council Gets Some Things Right, But Not All

This editorial is the opinion of Bill Coburn, publisher of Sierra Madre News Net and 15 year Sierra Madre resident. It is not intended to reflect the views of any other person or entity with whom I am associated.

At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, the City Council did the right thing by setting the proposed water rate increase aside. Not only was it the right thing, it was actually an extraordinary thing. To respond to the will of the people of the community in this manner, when the consequences to the City for doing so could be, shall we say, problematic, even when not legally required to do so, was an extraordinary action by this Council, and one that their critics are not giving them enough credit for. Of course, part of the reason they are not being given the credit is because they then turned around and did the wrong thing.

I understand why the Council remained silent on the issue of whether or not they would allow the people to protest the next rate increase proposal. One of the first rules of business is to not close off options unless you absolutely have to. I don’t have any law training, but I’m guessing that rule is one that is pressed even harder in that profession, so with two attorneys on the Council, this was probably not the direction they wanted to go. Kind of like in sales, you should never negotiate against yourself, and never negotiate the price you will receive to a lower amount. But in this case, I think the Council made a mistake in not recognizing that closing off an option (by allowing a Prop. 218 protest on the next proposal) was something they HAD to do. They couldn’t vote on it at the meeting, because it wasn’t on the agenda, but they could have all said “that’s our intent.”

As much distrust as their has been of this council, and as much anger as has been stirred up by this increase and the way it was handled, this Council should have stated collectively that they would allow the ratepayers and parcel owners of this town the opportunity to protest the proposal they come back with. It would have gone a long way toward opening up the lines of communication and toward helping to build up some trust. And after all, having already taken the extraordinary action of listening to the protestors even though they weren’t legally required to do so, this would have just been an extension of that action. And if this protest failed, which it legally did, and they trust their outreach program to explain to the people why the next proposed increase is necessary, they should expect that they will be able to get the next proposal passed, too. So on that Agenda item, I think they got one right, one wrong.

On the outreach program item, I think they got it right. Taking the time to talk to the people of this town, and more importantly to listen, is the only way they stand a chance of getting the people to approve a water hike in the future. Well, not the only way, they can send it through by using the option I think they should have given up. They can, legally, send an increase through without the approval of the people, as long as it is lower than the plan they just decided to scuttle, but they shouldn’t.

Unlike former Mayor Kurt Zimmerman, I don’t think that the outreach program is predicated on the idea that the Council thinks the residents are stupid, I think it’s predicated on the idea that the Council thinks the residents are uninformed. And they are, although nowhere nearly as uninformed as they were two months ago. I’ve heard some criticism that the issue of the bonds was brought up late, though I don’t know for sure when it was first cited as one of the reasons for the hike. If, as the City Attorney implied at the July 13th meeting, the bond company has the right to accelerate payment of the debt to pay it immediately, it may not be in the best interests of the City to send up flares saying hey, we’re not conforming to the terms of our contract. Maybe, that’s why they didn’t talk about it in the beginning. Whatever the reason, it is being perceived by some as sneakiness and conspiracy. There’s no conspiracy folks, just a bunch of people trying to do their job. But it will be easier for them to do their jobs if, as Council member MacGillivray suggested, we are told what projects need to be done, where they stand in urgency, how much they will cost, and how much the people will benefit from the projects. Projects that we end up paying only a portion of because we are able to get funding from others might be worth it in the long run. But I think the residents of this town want to learn a little bit more about what’s being proposed before giving it their blessing.

The other thing the Council got right was the General Plan item. I haven’t been following that too much, but it now has my attention. Kudos to City Attorney Levin for providing the City with a solution they didn’t really ask for, by suggesting that a list of volunteers be created to implement an outreach program created by the Steering Committee, rather than creating a Brown Act committee. Bringing in a bunch of volunteers that are not restricted by the Brown Act to work on this plan could jump start this process, and the Council will still have the option, if I understood it correctly, of having more say in the creation of the advisory committees down the road. The General Plan should have as much resident participation as possible, and this seems like a good way to go about it.