Acting expeditiously, a California city council shuts the public out of key decision

When the Redding City Council abruptly acted to scuttle plans to build a new police station, they may have violated no open-meeting rule and even made the right decision given the state of the economy, but the suddenness of the vote violated the spirit of the Brown Act, giving the public no chance to consider the issue adequately. –DB

January 25, 2009

Our view: The right path toward a police station is a tough question. Making on-the-fly decisions with only the vaguest public notice is no way to get the right answer.

Asked whether last week’s unexpected Redding City Council decision to scrap the planning for a new city police station complied with the Brown Act, the state’s open-meetings law, City Attorney Rick Duvernay carefully replied that the action fell “within the letter of the law.” Maybe it did.

But the point of the law is to give the public – the taxpayers and voters – adequate notice of pending public business. That plainly didn’t happen with a terse announcement on the City Council’s agenda that Vice Mayor Patrick Jones “would like to discuss this topic again.”

Potential neighbors of the police station, members of the citizens committee that last year analyzed the city’s options, the city staff involved, the architects who’ve been working on the project and were, more or less, summarily fired Tuesday night – all were blindsided when a vague discussion abruptly became a 180-degree reversal in the city’s direction. And the sudden turnabout came after minimal, off-the-top-of-their-heads financial analysis from the city manager and engineers with zero input from the public.

This is no way to ensure that councilors are making sound decisions with all the relevant facts in hand. This is no way to ensure straight, transparent government – a campaign promise of several of the candidates who voted for the switch. This is, in short, no way to run a city.

That’s not to say the decision was, in the big picture, a surprise. November’s election of station skeptic Missy McArthur to the council, controversy over building in South City Park and, above all, the rapidly sinking economy made it far-fetched to imagine the city building a station in the near future.

And it makes sense to more closely study alternatives, including possible retrofits of existing buildings. As the economy shifts, the city might find itself a sweet deal. The real estate agents all say it’s a buyer’s market.

But without a particular piece of property in mind, the council is simply speculating that something better will show up. That makes it an odd decision to drop, mid-course, the work on schematic designs and site plans that would give the city more precise cost estimates and give the council a firm basis for whatever decision it eventually makes.
Why bother? What’s the point if the city can’t afford to build a new station anyway?

Police Chief Peter Hansen, who said he was disappointed by the council’s decision, is realistic about the dismal prospects for building anything today. He suggests, however, keeping an eye on the long haul and the benefits of a police station built to last and built for its task, complete with crime labs, evidence storage, holding cells, weapons lockers and other accouterments that builders leave out of a typical insurance office.

“I think the responsible thing to do is think long term,” Hansen said. “Maybe that involves a delay for some time, but let’s not just jump at the first thing that comes along.”

Smart guy, the chief. Slowing down and gathering all the facts before leaping to decisions might be good advice for the council all around.