"Fait accompli." City Council ROUTINE Consent Calendar "blank checks"

As our Orange Juice blog focus last week was on “freedom of speech” I thought it worth a little investigative reporting to research the policies of our 34 cities with regard to “open government.” Said another way the right of any citizen to pull routine items off the Consent Calendar for our comments.

The cover page of the Mission Viejo Meeting Agenda’s carries the following definition and procedures of the CONSENT CALENDAR.

“All matters listed on the CONSENT CALENDAR are routine, and the recommended actions will all be approved by a single motion. No discussion will be held on these items unless the specific item is removed from the CONSENT CALENDAR for separate action or discussion.” Note: This text is from an earlier meeting but I am certain that the policy has not changed.

Back in 2002 we accomplished what Register Senior Editorial writer Steven Greenhut labeled “the revolution in Mission Viejo” where we removed a sitting mayor and mayor pro-tem in the same council election. During their reign they would not permit members of the public to pull Consent Calendar items unless one of the five took that initiative. We asked the new members to support a change permitting us to question these items which resulted in a 5-0 policy change a few months later. Although not abused by us, our newest council member, whom some of us supported, joined with others who we helped get elected, to rescind that policy change. Today only members of the council can pull Consent Calendar items.

Why is this important? Aside from my discovering a half million contract for expanding our library a number of years ago, (a project which may have not been competitively bid), I recently posted about one of our other CIP’s. In this example we started a project at $5.5 million which, as of Change Order #10, is around $13.5 million. At the last council meeting I pointed out that it has undergone 10 change orders including one that very evening that was found on the routine Consent Calendar that we can no longer directly discuss.

Time out! I have just looked at Monday, October 1st’s Routine Consent Calendar in which the council will vote on ANOTHER Change Order (#11) as follows:

Agenda Item 16. Norman P. Murray Community and Senior Center Expansion (CIP 994) Recommended Action: (1) Approve Change Order #11 to Douglas E. Barnhart, Inc. in the amount of $355,286 for additional construction costs for subject project; (2) approve Change Order #2 to Friess Construction in the amount of $27,364 for additional construction management costs for subject project; (3) approve Change Order #6 to Robert R. Coffee Architect and Associates in the amount of $38,150 for additional design costs for subject project; and (4) adopt Resolution No. 07-XX Amending the Fiscal Year 2007-08 Budget to Increase Estimated Appropriations for the Norman P. Murray Community & Senior Center Expansion Capital Improvements Project (CIP 994).
I guess we are now around $14 million and counting for this $5.5 million expansion.

Oh, we can discuss these items during our three minute Public Comments which we may have set aside for different topics. Or we can kiss a member’s ring, tip them off in advance of our concern, and hope and pray they pull them which opens the door for further discussion when that segment comes up.

Back to Public Comments. It is important to point out that the council is not obligated to respond to, or take action on, public comments. In addition we cannot request a staff report or answers to our questions. To me this is not “open and transparent government.”

In defending our loss of open government interaction, Member Frank Ury said that I have his number and if I wish to discuss any of the ROUTINE items simply give him a call to discuss it. He will consider addressing it on my behalf. Thank you very much. We are to tell you in advance of things that we find questionable so that council or staff can have time to prepare a reply. Not exactly as most people play poker.

“Fait accompli.” By the time these items appear on the Routine Consent Calendar it’s simply a formality. So tonight we will approve Change Order #11 for the expansion of our community center by tacking on another half million dollars and we are shut out. If we oppose this action we can use our three minute public speaking time which might already be set aside for discussing the extension of the 241. In my view their vote on these items is nothing more than going through the motions as they typically approve all of same in one full sweep with minimal discussion. Would they ever vote no? There is one member who has questioned these items, namely Mayor Reavis.

While they are at it perhaps we should add another $3-$5 million for a retractable roof so that we can create the Hayden Planetarium West in Mission Viejo. Why not?

Fast forward to today. I have contacted many of the cities in Orange County to see what their policy is regarding oral public input on Agendized Consent Calendar items in addition to the Public Comment segment. While our neighboring south county cities of Irvine, Lake Forest, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel and San Juan Capistrano each permit members of the public to pull these items for discussion our current city council majority does not.

One local activist told me that: “they don’t care about public opinion.” Based on the recent change in policy I must agree. I am disappointed in that a local reporter said she was going to cover this story several months ago but apparently doesn’t wish to ruffle anyone’s feathers in city hall. She must be following the Orange Juice blog concerns in Santa Ana, read today’s LA Times, and is honkering down on this story.

As I plan to get this post out before our council meeting I have yet to receive feedback from all of the cities contacted. While the cities of Brea, Cypress and Garden Grove say no, Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley and Fullerton all responded saying they do permit members of the public to address these items aside from Public comments.

What has been your experience on these ROUTINE items?

Do you feel that change orders over $100,000 are to be treated as routine?

With this being a “fait accompli” are we wasting our time even discussing it?

About Larry Gilbert