21

Fremont Council report

I tried to pre-write my city council story this afternoon.

Bad idea.

I wrote that the council was going to do more to solicit public input early in this year’s budget deliberations.

That was what Councilmember Bill Harrison suggested, but that’s not what the council wanted to do.

Like recent annual city budgets, this one is going to be painful, as the city digs even deeper into its reserves and contemplates service reductions and employee pay cuts.

Harrison wanted to the council to consider commissioning a budget survey this year, and maybe forming a citizen budget commission for future years.

But his colleagues argued that the council should come up with a budget plan and then take that to the public, if any of them really care about it anyway — Fremont budget hearings are usually very quiet affairs.

Here’s a bit of what Dominic Dutra said:

“I don’t think we need to survey citizens to figure out what we need to do … I certainly appreciate the idea that we need to get their input. But the council needs to take responsibility to come up with a plan.”

And here’s a bit from Mayor Wasserman:

The real key that tends to get overlooked is it’s wrong t ogo out and ask the public what they thin, unless you can give them something of what you think.

The mayor also recalled his days as police chief when the public was more active in crafting budgets.

As police chief it was a lot of my time, he said. And the end result was really nothing.

Matt Artz

  • Robert

    So much for public participation in city council decisions.

  • Andrew C.

    Oh, don’t worry, they’ll get back to “asking” us about our city come November 2012. Gee, I wonder what we should tell them?

  • chinmoy roy

    Bill’s thinking that the citizens should be provided an insight into the inner workings of the city finances is a very good idea and needs some pursuit. Currently, there seems to be an appearance of reluctance by the City manager and the City Council to have a Citizens’ Committee. When they wanted a bond passed some 3 to 4 years ago, I remeber being on such a Citizens’ Committee. But the charter for that committee was to go out and sell the bond idea to the community. If the City manger finds us to be useful in that regard, then I ask why doesn’t he and the Council want us to go and look what is happening inside.

    Hosni Mubarak, you may have some company here in Fremont in our City Council members.

  • californiaguy

    The Mayor of Fremont and City Council do not want the public input on Fremonts Budget.
    Why am I not suprised. Shame on the people who elected them.
    Amatuer Hour at City Hall Every Tuesday @ 7:00 PM.

  • IndependentGuy

    All yee of little faith, what are you worried about? We have five part-time council members who are otherwise an urban planner, dental practice administrator, accountant, real estate developer, and retired police chief. Certainly they by themselves have the extensive expertise and experience to restructure a large complex organization with $250 million in revenues and just south of that in expenditures. Maybe even city staff has never faced such a revenue/budget situation.

    But it’s not so unusual in the corporate world, and that’s the experience and insights that might be valuable. Surely there are citizens/commuters with such experience. They are the one’s I’d put on an advisory committee — not any random person.

    My personal view is that governments at city, county, state, and federal levels have enough money. They simply can’t do everything and be a “mile wide and inch deep”. Some things will have to give (be cut). The answer is not to float more taxes and bonds. I think there could be two areas of focus for such a committee: one might be how to eliminate excesses in the organization (like the number of city attorneys), the other might be how to resize the budget to the current revenues.

  • chinmoy roy

    IndependentGuy, there cannot be any argument against having folks with a financial background on the Committee. But the city would also benefit by having some folks who can think outside the box, such as having lesser number of City attorneys, an item that you suggest which I think is good.

  • Gus Morrison

    Somehow complaining about a lack of public involvement in the process exposes a lack of knowledge about the process. Thus has it always been.

    I have watched city councils closely ince 1972 (Oh God am I old.) In my early years, I took on the budget every year. I got a copy of the document, studied it, attended all the work sessions, and commented on it at the public hearings. It was pretty easy to understand and, believe it or not, many,if not most, of my comments made it into the budget, and it helped me to grow.

    Over the years, though, I think the average number of speakers on the budget, over the two required public hearings, is 1 1/2. And, most of the comments reflect some self interest.

    The process is quite open. Council has 4 quarterly budget reviews, usually work sessions. At the February review (next week?), they give direction for items to be included in the budget for the next fiscal year, to be presented to council in May. That budget is available to the public in a variety of ways and, although I haven’t looked, probably on line.

    The budget transmittal letter summarizes conditions and rationale for the items in the budget and the document breaks down funding and revenue from all funds and for all departments. While it is a large document, it is usually readable and understandable.

    There are then two public hearings where anyone can speak to the council and provide input to the process, with the document required to be adopted by June 30.

    On top of the annual budget, there is an audit performed by a CPA firm (which changes every several years to maintain independence) which is presented to council along with the Annual Financial Report, also easily available to the public.

    I would encourage some of the smart minds (I really mean it) on this blog to spend some time on the budget, comment to the council, and take part in the process.

    IG might find out that after we fund public safety and maintenance, we have spent 90+ percent of our money. Not smart to curtail maintenance or we just create a problem downstream. And, after the predicted spate of pension reform comments, how do we reduce the public safety budget? Pension reforms will come, but not until there is some employee turnover.

    When I write my book, there will be a chapter entitled “Never expect an original idea out of an elected official or a bureaucrat.” They are no different than you or I and sometimes it is hard to think when the lights and cameras are pointed at you. The solution to this is to provide your elected officials with your original ideas, convince them it was their idea in the first place, and then just watch them run with the idea.

    If you think there is a vacuum around city hall, you contribute to it by not trying to fill it. I can point to numberous things that happened over my years because someone from the public had an idea, presented it to the council, and saw it implemented. Maybe cable tv, internet, and blogs have removed us from being participants and made us critics. I once heard Syvia Seigel, founder of TURN (Toward Utility Normalization Now), the scourge of PG&E, speak. She exhorted us to “Get off our apathy!” I encourage you to take action.

  • Fremont_Voter

    Gus. With all due respect, I believe your firm belief in the “process” is in itself the root cause of the problem. The “process” has been manipulated to the point that the public realizes that the comments made are just a dog-and-pony show, since the decision has already been made. Whatever information made available to public is designed to be convoluted. For example, supporters of Redevelopment Agency adamantly denied backfill deficit to school and local services, only to be contradicted by Governor Brown recently. This is nothing short of lying to the public.

    You said “The solution to this is to provide your elected officials with your original ideas, convince them it was their idea in the first place, and then just watch them run with the idea”. Yes there are those who tried to speak up and, guess what, they got shot down. As you recalled, they were called “MOB”.

    Furthermore, “smart minds” citizens realize that 1-2 minutes comment is not the prudent way to solve complicated, long-term, and structural problems and issues. However, it is the “process” that you firmly committed to defend that prevent other alternatives.

    I’m sure many of these “smart mind” citizens are shaking their heads at how city leaders approved all these contracts over the years and not see this budget shortfall coming? How about financial shock test? Oh…sorry…We are talking about our bureaucratic minded mayor here. Perhaps, these financial management concepts are too foreign for him. Any how about the support for businesses? Rather that having an outreach, the “process” is holding back business formation. Does the “process” include feedback from business owner on the city’s performance? Nope. Are there anything in the “process” that will help facilitate business formation, short of running through bureaucratic redtapes? What transpired from Wieckowski’s trip to China? Nothing.

    The city leaders are so fixated in generating revenue form real estate developers and related activities that they failed to diverse their revenue base. Is diversification a foreign concept to city leaders? It appears the only thing the city knows how to do is provide corporate subsidy and the land give away for..say..the A’s? Those money could have been spent fixing roads, trimming tree, and other local services.

    If the “process” continues to work the way it is suppose to work, my bet is the city will ask for more taxes to cover their mismanagement over the years.

  • Robert

    I don’t think you can ever go wrong in soliciting public input.

  • californiaguy

    Gus Morrison, Fremont_Voter,
    Thank you both for a really good discussion on Fremonts political process.

  • bbox231

    “As police chief it was a lot of my time, he said. And the end result was really nothing.”

    Two very different ways one could interpret such a comment . . . on one hand this could be viewed as confirmation of the very lousy ideas that originate from a signifcant majority of constituency, or, it could be an admission of obstinance by the listener.

    I am pursuaded by other words and actions by this same individual to conclude that it is largely the latter.

  • http://fcnisbacon.wordpress.com/ Marty

    I’ll chime in on pension costs and employee turnover. An employee with no contract can be an employee with no job. I don’t hate the public sector, but as a matter of leveraging, Fremont will have no better opportunity to reform the budget and to put funding back into the schools and parks that have made Fremont a tolerable place to live.

    Without good schools, Fremont is Stockton of the west. And when the patching and plugging and bandage efforts end and reality finally falls, a firefighter in Stockton has no business making more that 50K/year in today’s dollars. Something to think about, city employee.

  • Gus Morrison

    I guess I ought to let this go, but I can’t. I do believe in the process because local government is the last level that actually works. It still is the level where one person, elected or not, can make a difference.

    So, you go and be called a mob. So, go next week, and the week after that, and so on. Now you are a movement, then a force, soon an incumbent.

    When good ideas from the public are rejected, those rejecting them look bad, and those presenting them look good. Warren Benis wrote a book called “Leaders” which attempted to find common traits among people considered leaders. The single common trait he found was an unwillingness to accept failure. Failure was seen as an opportunity to try something else. Going away because your first idea (or second) was rejected is a failure, coming back to try again is leadership.

    There is a Quaker saying “Speak truth to power” which ought to be a motto for a movement. The public will perceive the truth and those who reject it will be diminished and eventually rejected also.

    I spent two years, 1980 to 1982, as the one vote on a 4-1 city council, which may have been one of the worst councils in our history. Being in a constant minority, I was probably more effective in making my points than I ever was after that. That period defined my skills and effectiveness as a member of the council and put me in position to be reelected and then to be elected mayor 5 times (and one loss, but I really needed the time off.)

    So, if you really care, keep the pressure on. Don’t watch the meetings on tv, go to them. Speak when you have something to say and keep quiet when you have nothing to say. Be positive, offer ideas and suggestions, study the issues and be ready to participate, and, when they need help, help them.

  • bbox231

    Great thoughts all, Gus.

    One question emerged as I considered your thoughts -

    When does “..an unwillingness to accept failure..” cease to be a another arrow in the quiver of those who we would seek out as leaders, as opposed to another stone of obstinance ?

    Persistance is clearly one trademark of sound leadership. Obstinance is detrimental. But, inasmuch as their respective efforts to avoid failure, I speculate that both the persistant and the obstinant individual will work with equal furvor – motivated by very different reasoning.

  • Chinmoy Roy

    Good discussion folks. Maybe Bill Harrison needs to clarify his suggestion for inviting public input when some claim the the budget formulation process already does so. Or does it?

  • IndependentGuy

    Re #7. As a matter of fact, I had quickly reviewed both the city’s 150-page general plan and 250-page proposed operating budget. However, I didn’t consider the budget as 90% a foregone conclusion. I just noticed the expense categories, the total expense, the headcount (FTE), the pension obligations in aggregate. I wondered about how much non-people dollars there were, as it didn’t appear to be broken out. I wondered if an employee working 50% overtime was represented as 1.0 or 1.5 FTE. I thought about the relationship of these documents to the detail provided in the State’s salary database. I don’t know how salaries, headcount, and overtime compare to cities of comparable size (though it would not surprise me if many cities over-spend).

    Corporations have to align their expenses to revenues to meet profit targets. Government entities do the same but to a deficit/suprplus target. A city can no longer do what it would like to do when it no longer has tax revenues of an up economy to support it. My gut is that California and the federal govt, maybe the Counties, are way more bloated in budget than what I saw for Fremont, but that’s just a guess.

  • bbox231

    #15 -

    The need to “clarify” as you suggest, I would extend to many other Council discussions.

    Never have I been witness to a debate amongst council participants with the intent of eeking out the pro’s and cons of opposing viewpoints. I am convinced that the best-of-breed is understood by all BEFORE any discussion begins.

    I am hopeful that Dutra might bring an ounce of this kind of thinking to the group . . . clearly, none of the legacy members understand how this works, or, if they do, none possess the courage to agressively press a position. Watching this behavior over and over I cant help but wonder what the risk/reward mechanisms are for anyone that steps out of line.

    The instances where an individual has the courage to just speak up are rare and accompanied by a profound timidity and deference . . . and we NEVER get around to any serious discussion of opposing positions.

    It is, at worst, dysfunctional and, at best, less than the best we are likely capable of, and occurs in a time when we cannot afford anything less.

    Most businesses and public institutions have long ago recognized the flaws of this kind of deference to hierarchy and have recognized the long-term benefits of creating ” . . . a climate or culture where the freedom to respectfully question authority is encouraged.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crew_resource_management

    As in so many other aspects, we remain mired in a paradigm which has, for most, long ago been passed over as obsolete.

  • Charlotte Allen

    When I attended budget and redevelopment meetings last year and had the nerve to say that redevelopment was draining funds from schools and city services, I was attacked by council members, city staff, the president of the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, and members of the League of Women Voters. It was an unpleasant experience, to say the least, and a bit terrifying. My experience of the City’s “process” is that it’s designed to encourage those who agree with the Council’s position to speak up, and to humiliate and silence any of us who have substantial disagreements with City policy.

  • californiaguy

    Charlotte, Amen

  • Gus Morrison

    So, Charlotte, IG, et al, don’t give up. Become more informed than the councilmembers. Focus on specific things and, in a short time, you will become the expert, at least from a lay perspective. Make your comments thoughtful, succinct, and informative. Explain technical things in real-people language. The public (and the council) will appreciate it.

    Ask questions of staff. E-mail really works best and the council agenda lists the appropriate staff, along with their contact information. Fremont city e-mail address are First initial last name @fremont.gov (Jdoe@fremont.gov).

    As to the question of leaders having no concept of failure, Benis quotes Thomas Edison, who was asked by a reporter how it felt to have failed 10,000 time trying to find a way to store electricity. Edison said, “That is not correct, I now know 10,000 ways not to store electricity.” I guess it is the perspective.

  • Robert