1st Amendment News

Real agenda cloaked in government buzzwords and bafflegab

BY DICK ROGERS—When it came time last December to vote on a labor contract for hundreds of city workers, San Leandro leaders didn’t scurry into a back room to make the politically hot decision in secret.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that San Leandro, like other local governments, obscured its intent and minimized public participation in another way. Call it hiding in plain sight.

Instead of helping the public by spelling out the most salient contract provisions, the city’s official agenda announced the upcoming vote like this:

“Resolution Approving the Memorandum of Understanding [MOU] Between the City of San Leandro and the San Leandro City Employees’ Association, Local 21 IFPTE, AFL-CIO [SLCEA] (provides for a two-year contract for the period January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2012).”

Did that mean city workers were in line for raises or two years of wage stagnation? Was the City Council about to adopt pension reform or continue business as usual? What was the price tag for taxpayers?

At a time when local governments are in financial trouble and the public is demanding answers, these are key questions. But not a word was said. For Joe Citizen, the vague and unhelpful language offered no clues. But the city wasn’t through pulling down the curtain. Instead of encouraging public involvement, the city buried the item in the middle of the agenda’s consent calendar, generally reserved for routine decisions that need no discussion, like new stop signs. Although council-watchers and political insiders knew to show up, would the general public have packed the chambers had they known what was at stake?

San Leandro isn’t unique when it comes to favoring opaque language. Last year, the Los Angeles City Council agenda listed “CONSIDERATION, DISCUSSION and POSSIBLE ACTIONS addressing the Fiscal Year 2009-10 and 2010-11 budget deficits, City staff and others to report on budget balancing matters and possible closed executive session as it may relate to bargaining instructions relative to negotiations with employees and employee organizations.”

Not once did officials warn the public they were about to authorize elimination of as many as 4,000 positions.
The First Amendment Coalition is currently involved in litigation with Los Angeles, arguing that the state’s Ralph M. Brown open meetings act requires more than vague, misleading or wholly incomplete notice when key decisions are about to be made.

The public deserves better. It doesn’t take a Steinbeck to write clearly and concisely. Transparency is all the rage these days, but it’s little more than a buzzword when government cloaks itself in jargon and bafflegab.

Dick Rogers, a veteran newspaperman, was most recently Metro Editor, then ombudsman at the San Francisco Chronicle. He has taught at San Francisco State University and Ohlone College in Fremont and is a writing coach for the California Scholastic Journalism Initiative .  Dick is a member of the FAC board of directors.

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4 Awesome Comments So Far

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  1. jack osborne
    May 9, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

    the problem lies not with the public agency leaders , but with the responsible attorneys advising the leaders.
    It is the responsiblity of the attorney advising the members to make sure that they do not violate the laws relating to public meetings.
    If they do not have the guts to tell the agency that they are wrong they, the attorneys, should be held to the fire for toasting.
    I have found that it appears as though the attorneys fear challenging their employers regarding these matters. As those employers have the power to eliminate the attorneys from their positions.

    If the attorneys do not want to make sure the agency is following the law, they should resign their positions.

    Ah, but it is so easy for an attorney to say the law does not apply in a particular situation, and there is no penalty for so stating.

    Which is why McKee was so effetive, as he could do it on his own volition.

    Who can replace him?

    I would suggest the FAC amd CalAware have fill-in complaints where an individual, if so desiring, can just put in the facts and file it with the courts.

  2. jack osborne
    May 9, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

    this is the major problem:
    ““Resolution Approving the Memorandum of Understanding [MOU] Between the City of San Leandro and the San Leandro City Employees’ Association, Local 21 IFPTE, AFL-CIO [SLCEA] (provides for a two-year contract for the period January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2012).”

    You see the public never gets to see the information at all, unless, that is, the City posts it on the website for the public’s information!

    All of the information is done in closed session! Theoretically, I believe, if the CC should not know the contents of the MOU as the result of the negotiations between the union and city’s negotiator.

    Further,AG’s pamphlet contains thei:

    The court stated, “Salaries and other terms of compensation constitute municipal budgetary matters of substantial public interest warranting open discussion and eventual electoral public ratification.” (San Diego Union v. City Council (1983) 146 Cal.App.3d 947, 955.)

    Ah, but how the attorneys don’t like to have to agree with the courts.

    So, where was the attorney saying that salaries , etc., should be discussed in public. What, they don’t agree with the courts?
    How strange!

  3. Louise L Mathews
    May 10, 2011 at 12:15 am #

    The Town of San Anselmo has a history of repeatedly using imprecise and imcomplete wording in an agenda. Town Attorney (past and present) has opined that the Town has described an agenda item sufficiently, as required by the Ralph M Brown Act. This means the Town used at least 20 words to describe the agenda item.
    Obviously citizens who are unaware of pertinent taxpayer issues (labor commitments, enhanced town fees, and encumbrances to actual participation) are not “missing” anthing according to town officials. The town has not provided the citizen the knowledge and access to information upon which to become aware.
    A further insult has been the support of the Town’s agenda insufficiencies by the Marin County Office of District Attorney when citizen greivances are filed.
    As to San Leandro burying an item in the Cosent Agenda, Town of San Anselmo went further by requiring that the citizens remark to or question Consent Agenda items as a separate communication. Neither Council or Staff is required to respond to or answer the citizen’s concerns about the local agency governance and the Council seldom does unless the citizen comments are laudatory. This aberration process for the Consent Agenda and the merits of citizen to representative communication is an insult to any constitutional-based democracy.
    Municipal websites have become filled with obtuse transparency. Critical details are hidden in pages of narrative that must be ferreted out or worse, an item is scheduled as a Oral Report that has no supporting document.
    Town Attorney of San Anselmo has always said his job is to do only as asked by the Town Manager, Mayor, and Council. Somewhere there has to be source advocating all these mnunicipal agencies who are making all the wrong moves that impair the Brown Act.

  4. jack osborne
    May 10, 2011 at 1:17 am #

    And it’s name is “League of California Citys”

    LOL