|Council Flouts Brown Act,
Threatens to Censure Council Member Over Secrecy Breach
April 2, 2004
Once again, some of my City Council colleagues have excoriated me for violating the code of secrecy that has traditionally shrouded Richmond City government. After chastising me privately, they made a public threat to censure me, I am told, in the post midnight wrap-up of the March 30 City Council meeting.
I don’t have personal knowledge of the censure threat, because I had left earlier, about 9:00 PM, in disgust, after having already put in eight hours of City Council meetings in one day and accomplishing little of which I could be proud. I tried to watch the rest of the meeting on TV, but went to sleep well before midnight – probably a better use of my time.
Last Saturday, March 28, I received in my packet a memo from the City Manager entitled “Financial Recovery Report” describing the latest budget balancing strategy and a “Workforce Activity Reduction Plan” that detailed the impacts of 203 proposed layoffs. These documents were included in about one and a half inches of paper and were not marked “confidential.”
Considering the high level of public interest, I thought I was doing the public a service by scanning the documents and distributing them via the E-Forum, particularly since the City is not well known for making information readily available on its own website. My colleagues and City staff took exception, explaining that even though the memos were not marked “confidential,” I should have known they were anyway. Usually, they don’t give me credit for that level of intelligence (or in this case, mind reading), so I guess I should have taken it as a compliment.
This proclivity for secrecy in Richmond is a long tradition, and I have written about it and challenged it for years. See the November 8, 2002 E-Forum, City Officials Obsessed with Secrecy, and E-Forum February 1, 2004, Secrecy Continues to Prevail in Richmond.
Some of my colleagues also argued that it was ethically wrong to release the information because the City Council had not yet voted on it, and employees were emotionally devastated when they received it. Well, the City Council ultimately supported the city manager’s layoff plan with only one exception, the Police Commission, which was spared after I pointed out that it was not only self-supporting but that it required rescission of an ordinance that was passed pursuant to a Federal court consent decree. City staff members who crafted the layoff plan were surprised to learn that the Police Commission was supported by state funds, and I would not have known about it if someone had not read my E-Forum on Saturday and faxed me the supporting documents after enlightening me.
Had I not circulated the proposed layoff plan, neither the public nor City employees would have come to the City Council meeting armed with any information about the specific impact and scope of the cuts.
As far as devastation goes, I guess I erred by causing two additional days of shock, because employees were plenty devastated by the time the closed session vote was announced on March 30.
Now, the City has been threatened with legal action by both SEIU Local 790 and Contra Costa Newspapers for Brown Act violations in connection with the secret deliberations over layoffs. At first, City officials defended their secrecy, as reported in the West County Times: “Mayor Irma Anderson said she was assured the council was not skirting the law before the discussions began…Assistant City Attorney Everett Jenkins said the meeting, which included instructions to labor negotiators, conformed to the provisions of the law.
By the time the San Francisco Chronicle called, they must have been having second thoughts. According to today’s Chronicle, “Jenkins did not return calls for comment Thursday. Phone calls to the city manager and Mayor Irma Anderson also were not returned.”
On last night’s KRON4 News, it was announced that City officials had capitulated to the charges of Brown Act violations (without admitting guilt) and that the layoff vote would be retaken in the public City Council session on April 6.
Today’s news stories from the Contra Costa Times and the San Francisco Chronicle follow.
The city of Richmond will lay off 213 workers, shutter its branch libraries and close half of the city's recreational centers by next month as a result of $9.2 million in budget cuts approved by the City Council this week.
Hamstrung by a projected $35 million shortfall for the coming fiscal year, city officials expect to make 200 more layoffs unless they can negotiate concessions worth another $9.2 million from the city's unions in the next two weeks. Ultimately, 38 percent of the city's workforce could lose their jobs.
Many residents in the city of 100,000 -- already dismayed that their school district has voted to close libraries and stop funding high school sports -- fear the cuts to city services will be especially devastating to young people.
"One of the real tragedies here is that services for children are being cut out from several angles," said Deborah Doctor, a resident for 12 years. "The idea of cutting back on library time for kids in Richmond is just inconceivable."
"The citizens are getting a double whammy," said Parks and Recreation Director Jesse Washington, whose department will lay off 84 of 117 employees. "It's a real bad message to the quality of life in our area."
Thanks to cutting the parks and recreation budget from $8 million to $4.1 million for 2004-05, which begins July 1, the city will lay off two-thirds of its park maintenance staff, Washington said.
The city will close at least half of its 13 recreation centers, Washington said. It will also virtually eliminate its youth sports leagues unless it can find volunteers to coordinate them.
The city's libraries will also feel the pinch, said acting library director Kathy Haug. The city's two branch libraries -- Bayview and West Side -- will be closed, while the main library will only be open 30 hours a week. That will drop to 15 hours a week if the city makes the additional layoffs.
Haug said the library staff will be cut from 62 to 32 people, while its books and periodicals budget has been reduced from $200,000 to $60,000.
"We will probably only have local newspapers now, no magazines, and very few books coming in," Haug said.
The main library will also have to reduce the number of hours its bookmobile is available and cut back on children's activities and programs for adults learning English, Haug said.
NyRita McGee, a teacher at Richmond's Crescent Park Children's Center, was at the Bayview Branch Library Thursday with nearly two dozen 4-year-olds, who watched in wonder as librarian Wylendia Eastman read a story.
McGee said her class regularly goes to the library for story time and puppet shows. The city's main library is 2 1/2 miles away.
"The kids are saying 'Please don't lock the library,' " she said. "It's hard to travel with all these kids. Now, everyone is going to have to try to get downtown."
Angela Moore, program director of the Center for Human Development in North Richmond, said the city's cuts will hurt her nonprofit group, too. She runs a literacy program for 18 elementary school kids from Verde Elementary School, which meets at the Bayview library.
"This program has transitioned our kids to where they like to go to the library. They like reading. We won't have that program anymore," Moore said.
"This is a community where people can't afford to go to Barnes and Noble to buy books," Eastman said. "It's just not fair."
Some are angered not just by the cuts but by the fact the City Council made them without public debate.
During Tuesday's meeting, the council announced it had in closed session approved the layoffs -- as well as its decision to contract with a law firm handling labor negotiations, at a cost of up to $100,000 -- drawing jeers from many in attendance.
Service Employees International Union Local 790, which represents Richmond workers, has complained the council violated the Brown Act, which requires that decisions affecting the public be made in public.
The union has also complained about a closed session of the City Council on March 23 where it directed the city manager to identify $28 million in cuts to trim the city's projected deficit for the coming fiscal year.
"They are making some momentous decisions that need to be discussed in open session so there's accountability," said Larry Hendel, SEIU Local 790's director.
Acting City Attorney Everett Jenkins said at the City Council meeting Tuesday that the council's vote was made legally because it came during a meeting giving instructions to labor negotiators.
Jenkins did not return calls for comment Thursday. Phone calls to the city manager and Mayor Irma Anderson also were not returned.
E-mail Kelly St. John at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Union to sue Richmond over layoffs
RICHMOND - In the wake of a Tuesday closed session vote to lay off nearly 40 percent of Richmond's work force, attorneys for the Service Employees International Union Local No. 790 mounted a legal challenge against the city Wednesday.
"We are filing a lawsuit," said Millie Cleveland, SEIU field representative. "The vote was illegal."
The Times also protested the council's apparent violations of state open meetings law, demanding the council "cure or correct" its actions, nullify private votes and reintroduce those matters in open session.
The actions "go far beyond the confines of any exceptions granted by the Brown Act," said Karl Olson, the Times' attorney. "We want them to do the right thing. If they're going to make really crucial decisions about where to cut the budget and lay off a couple hundred people, we want them to look the public in the eye."
The Brown Act, which dictates how public business is carried out, allows governing bodies to discuss in private specific personnel matters, pending lawsuits and negotiation strategies. It requires posting of notices outlining general topics to be discussed.
Mayor Irma Anderson said she was assured the council was not skirting the law before the discussions began. She also said she welcomed Larry Hendel, staff director for SEIU, into the meeting to speak about possible violations.
Assistant City Attorney Everett Jenkins said the meeting, which included instructions to labor negotiators, conformed to the provisions of the law.
Critics say the council has been secretive about its closed-session meeting agenda, and has not posted required notices of the sessions.
"But even if they had, I just don't believe these are legal matters for discussion in a closed session," said Terry Francke, executive director of Californians Aware and founder of the First Amendment Coalition. "A fiscal crisis may have ramifications for the instructions for negotiating with an employee union, but it is not a cover for discussing budgeting alternatives and budgeting costs."
At issue are executive sessions March 23 and Tuesday, slated as meetings with legal counsel for labor negotiations, in which the council first directed staff to cut $28.4 million from the city budget by June 2005 and then approved laying off up to 38 percent of the city work force.
"Layoffs? Not in closed session," said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. "In doing so, they've violated the Brown Act's requirement that they do this in the open."
What's more, the actions are voidable, he said. "It's clear in that section (of the government code), 'No final action shall be taken.' So what they've done can be undone."
Richmond residents and union members called the Contra Costa County district attorney after Tuesday's meeting to request an investigation, Deputy District Attorney Jim Sepulveda said. Several are filing written complaints.
"A lot of DAs don't realize they have the civil powers to investigate Brown Act violations," Ewert said. "It's becoming more common in some areas."
At Tuesday's City Council meeting, SEIU members walked out, many crying, "Shame on you," after Jenkins delivered a closed session report.
Since then, "they've been feeling a combination of fear and outrage," Cleveland said. "They are very frustrated because they are working very hard to come up with cost savings that would avoid layoffs, but they feel the city really doesn't want to avoid layoffs. We're suspicious that the city has a plan to privatize, and we would fight that."
Reach Rebecca Rosen Lum at 510-262-2713 or email@example.com.