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Editorial: New committees undermine transparency

Original post made on May 3, 2013

Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff has just a year as the ceremonial head of the City Council, but in just four months he has made some changes that are rankling some of his colleagues and should also concern members of the public.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, May 3, 2013, 9:09 AM

Comments (7)

Posted by Neilson Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North
on May 3, 2013 at 11:12 am

Surely there are similar cities who have proven best practices to contain this confusion. If the Council members are divided/frustrated, then what about ordinary citizens who want to be informed, but walk away as the most rational response?


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 3, 2013 at 11:13 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

" the law doesn't require it and there is no way to enforce it."

Wrong - such committees DO fall under the Brown Act.

Here is the relevant section of the Brown Act:
"54952. As used in this chapter, "legislative body" means:
(a) The governing body of a local agency or any other local body
created by state or federal statute.
(b) A commission, committee, board, or other body of a local
agency, whether permanent or temporary, decisionmaking or advisory,
created by charter, ordinance, resolution, or formal action of a
legislative body. However, advisory committees, composed solely of
the members of the legislative body that are less than a quorum of
the legislative body are not legislative bodies, except that standing
committees of a legislative body, irrespective of their composition,
which have a continuing subject matter jurisdiction, or a meeting
schedule fixed by charter, ordinance, resolution, or formal action of
a legislative body are legislative bodies for purposes of this
chapter."

And here is the Attorney General's guidance:

"Any board, commission, committee or other body of a local agency created by charter,
ordinance, resolution or formal action of a legislative body is itself a legislative body.
( 54952(b).) Generally, this is the case regardless of whether the body is permanent
or temporary, advisory or decisionmaking. However, there is a specific exemption for
an advisory committee which is comprised solely of less than a quorum of the members
of the legislative body that created the advisory body. ( 54952(b).) This exception
does not apply if the advisory committee is a standing committee. ( 54952(b).) A
standing committee is a committee which has continuing jurisdiction over a particular
subject matter (e.g., budget, finance, legislation) or if the committee's meeting
schedule is fixed by charter, ordinance, resolution or other formal action of the
legislative body that created it."


Posted by senor blogger, a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2013 at 2:39 pm

This is clearly a violation of the Brown Act.

Shame on you.

Should the Grand Jury be involved now?


Posted by Maury, a resident of Barron Park
on May 3, 2013 at 3:02 pm

@Peter and senor blogger
I think you are misreading the Brown Act. You do not state the full text so I will ASSUME that the Act only applies to 'legislative bodies'. If that is so then, according to 54952(b) and the Attorney General's opinion, 'advisory' committees of only 4 members (less than a quorum) of the council are NOT legislative bodies and therefore are specifically exempt.
While it might 'improve efficiency' compared to the usual Palo Alto process, if the meetings are closed to the public, it sets a dangerous precedent for governance.


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on May 3, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Keep reading ---
", 'advisory' committees of only 4 members (less than a quorum) of the council are NOT legislative bodies and therefore are specifically exempt." EXCEPT that standing

committees of a legislative body, irrespective of their composition,

which have a continuing subject matter jurisdiction, or a meeting

schedule fixed by charter, ordinance, resolution, or formal action of

a legislative body ARE LEGISLATIVE BODIES for purposes of this

chapter."

The AG gives a pertinent example:
"Advisory committee comprised of two councilmembers for the purpose of
reviewing all issues related to parks and recreation in the city on an ongoing
basis: This committee is a standing committee which is subject to the Act's
requirements because it has continuing jurisdiction over issues related to parks
and recreation in the city."

PS - I did quote the full text of this section.


Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2013 at 4:23 pm

The Weekly's editorial suggests that the increased use of subcommittees will reduce the transparency of actions of the City Council, and presumably, the City, itself. Given the general lack of transparency of the City, and the PAUSD, this is a reasonable concern.

Which leads us to wonder if we should not be looking at the larger issue of transparency in general? The City has not adopted any of the transparency "tools" that have come into common use in many large cities—such as publishing the City Manager's schedule, posting all of the projects that are in the "pipeline" which will be coming before the City Council in the next ninety days, and publishing, in a searchable format, all of the email that has been received by the Council.

Given how virtually everything that the City now exists in a digital format—virtually all of this information should be published on the City's web-site. Items not now published, or not published in a convenient fashion, would be:

1) All email received by the Council (redacted only if necessary).
2) Telephone call logs of all Department Heads and above.
3) On-site schedule of the Mayor.
4) Schedule of all meetings concerning City Business.
5) Videos of all major meetings—accessible in a downloadable format.
6) All FPPC Form 700s.
7) Lists/Status of all Requests For Information Received by City.
8) Lists/Status of all law suits involving the City.
9) Lists of all votes taken by the City Council, in a convenient to read format.

10) Video processing software exists that can analyze a digital video file, and locate a person by name, make a list of "starting/ending points" where that person is speaking, as well as converting the audio tract to text. There is no reason that we should not expect the City to provide the residents with tools that allow us to review Council sessions at our convenience, obtaining video segments, and text, to help us in understanding the Council's actions as a whole, as well as those of individual Council Members (or members of the public, for that matter).

11)Storage of all City documents "on the cloud", in a fully indexed, and searchable format (which is now State law).

These items are but a few of those that I suspect that folks in this community would agree need to be made available to the residents. I also suspect that any number of us could quickly augment this list with dozens of other, equally, or more interesting, ideas.

I suspect that we would need to rethink the Brown Act, in light of having all of these technological innovations at our disposal. For instance—I have a problem with a premise that Council Members can not discuss issues among themselves, outside of a fully public meeting. Given that there is now video conferencing software that works well, it would make sense for Council Members to want to video chat with themselves. However, it would not take long for such an activity to collide with the Brown Act, I suspect. So—do we let this bit of 1950s legislation stand in the way of technological advancement, or do we rethink Brown—with an eye to allowing elected officials to communicate with each other in ways that have been illegal in the past?

There are so many issues here. Some of these posting tend to be longer than some folks might like to read—but Palo Alto is way behind in dealing with most of these issues, and so long postings result.


Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2013 at 8:14 pm

Wayne,

No worries, we have a "crack" team of council members - Scharf, Price & Klein on the technology committee, and they will make sure nothing happens.

And you missed this article, where Keene won an award for Open governement - Web Link - since he won an award - what are you complaining about?


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