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February 1, 2004

For any who are not subscribers or regular readers of the West County Times, I include a copy of today's article on control of the City Council Agenda. This dispute over control of the agenda is, in my opinion, an issue that strikes at the heart of our democracy. I, and other City Council members, are in the process of selecting an attorney to bring legal action against the City to seek a writ compelling agenda requests by City Council members to be honored.


Posted on Sun, Feb. 01, 2004

Agenda dispute strains council


After weeks of protests by laid off Richmond firefighters and their supporters, the call has intensified to discuss rehiring the workers in open session -- a controversial move, since labor contract talks are still under way.

The effort has tapped into a simmering dispute between Mayor Irma Anderson and some City Council members over who has the right to put items on meeting agendas.

The risks of a public discussion over laying off 18 firefighters extend beyond protocol: The city could send its already shaky bond rating spiraling downward by reversing layoffs that have helped balance the budget, credit analysts say.

Councilman Tom Butt made a pitch to place the item on the agenda this week. Mayor Irma Anderson promptly rejected it.

Councilman Jim Rogers has pressed unsuccessfully for a public airing of the issue for weeks.

"There are some complicated public policy issues about the layoffs, and I can respect that people can have a difference of opinion," Rogers said.

"But I can't respect that the mayor and city manager want to illegally hide the issue behind closed doors so people can't come in and have an honest, open discussion about it. I just don't understand why that's such a scary proposition," Rogers said.

Butt said he had little choice but to try to put the item on the agenda, since neither the city nor the International Association of Firefighters Union Local 188 has acted decisively to break a logjam that has lasted since the contract ended in June, he said.

Anderson has consistently declined to discuss the layoffs and their role in the city's financial stability in open session. Tensions have increased between Anderson and other council members.

Many have complained that the council has not had the opportunity to hash out these issues, or see detailed records that enable them to make appropriate decisions.

Anderson said it would be inappropriate to talk publicly about the contract talks until an agreement is reached.

"When you're in negotiations, you go through your negotiators, and we have not still not completed (that process)," she said. "We're still in impact bargaining."

Anderson had 29 years of experience as a union negotiator representing the county health division of public health nursing.

"I know what it was to have my staff cut," she said.

She knows the rules that apply during contract talks, she said.

The city's finance director has promised a detailed budget report Feb. 17, which presumably would include the information Anderson has declined to publicly discuss.

Butt, Rogers and Councilman Gary Bell have criticized Anderson for quietly removing from the council agenda items they have placed on it.

According to the city charter, any council member may set an agenda item.

In his widely distributed e-mail newsletter, Butt recently called Anderson, acting City Manager Jay Corey, assistant City Manager Leveron Bryant, and acting City Attorney Wayne Nishioka "the agenda junta."

"The most recent exercise of power by this junta occurred when I requested the Jan. 6 agenda to include a discussion of service cuts resulting from the layoffs instituted on Jan. 1," he wrote. "I was informed that (the four) discussed the matter (and directed the city clerk to remove it)."

Moody's Investor Services placed Richmond on its watchlist for possible credit downgrade, affecting $42 million of General Fund-supported debt. According to an opinion issued by the firm, one of the reasons for the negative credit watch is concern the city might reverse some of the firefighter layoffs.

"Unexpectedly narrowed cash balances" account for the credit watch, as well as "the potential reversal of anticipated layoffs intended to close a $9.5 million budget gap," according to Moody's Vice President John Cline.


Reach Rebecca Rosen Lum at 510-262-2713 or rrosenlum@cctimes.com.