When I ran for office, and then was sworn in in May, 2015, I promised some changes with how the City Council sometimes does business. On many of those points I can only be responsible for myself. That is, I can’t compel my council colleagues to make the same changes.
Among these, I’ve objected to one activity that has become a new tradition during council meetings. It’s generally referred to as the City Council “Reporting Out.”
To my knowledge, for decades this has been the time at which council members who are council-appointed representatives on, or serve as liaisons to, various committees, or who attended quasi-governmental meetings, or even traveled to conferences paid for by taxpayers, report on what took place. Often they’d relay literature received, sometimes briefly describing issues they thought worthy of future council or staff attention.
But roughly three years ago council members began using these sessions to report on every event they’d attended the previous week or more, from ribbon-cuttings to fundraisers. Whether it involves a parade, a ball game, or a student play, council members began announcing time they selflessly put in representing the city, literally reading aloud from the previous week’s calendar. Each item is also one last opportunity to congratulate hardworking volunteers, to give a “shout out” to pals, and often to mention or promote political players and allies.
It’s only my opinion, but I believe the vast majority of these “announcements” are more self-aggrandizing than they are informational, and they smack more of campaigning than they do of informing the public. Obviously, my colleagues are free to disagree, and thus far all of them appear to.
Intentionally or otherwise, the announcements are much like those of another public body in the region, one that has long favored public meetings that have seemed to me to be less about the open conduct of government business than they have been opportunities for circles of self-congratulations. Sessions are loaded down with scrupulous attention to titles and formalities, and other facets that emphasize the importance of officials, compared to citizens. I’m concerned about the City Council sliding in the same direction.
Of equal concern is the fact that, because Council agendas are often heavily loaded with matters that have little to do with the evening’s most substantive business, “Reporting Out” has become another exercise, like awards, proclamations and other procedures, that can help see the first item of business yet to be addressed 90 or even 120 minutes into a public meeting that begins at 6pm. This often makes it impossible for average citizens to wait as long as it can take for their opportunity to speak during oral communications, or even longer to oversee a particular council discussion. Because they ignorantly showed up at 6pm for a 6pm meeting, two hours later they may still be waiting to hear any mention of the subject that drew them away from home or work.
In 25 years of watching councils of every ideological stripe confront this problem, virtually every member has concluded the problem was how much someone else was talking, not themselves. Changes are typically made to shorten the tail end of the meeting – getting council members home earlier – while the padding and puffery at the front end is zealously guarded, or even inflated.
I DO support the council continuing to give people and organizations opportunities to advertise their upcoming events. This is amply provided for earlier in the meeting, and during the public comment periods.
Under the guise of reporting attendance at charitable events, council members enjoy an opportunity to advertise what unselfish champions of the community we are, including a couple who, until they became candidates, virtually never donated time, or a dollar to the same organizations. Indeed, I note that in the months I’ve served thus far, not one council member has “reported out” enough of the whole story to mention when their often expensive ticket to an event was paid for by taxpayers.
Two years ago, to defend his criticisms of one city department’s spending, a council member publicly ridiculed the flowery description found in invitations for one charitable gala to which the department bought tickets. Not that night, nor since, has that council member ever mentioned that tickets for exactly those events are routinely purchased for council members. This is one of the ways the city supports charities throughout the city. And he knows, at the very least, they are hardly the glamorous, exciting affairs described in press releases, and in ads sent to potential donors.
When council members mention a ribbon-cutting, Reporting Out rarely includes mention of whether they dropped by for five minutes, or an hour. When they visited an event, were they also given a small swag bag of gifts or souvenirs? How is it not ONE has ever mentioned any of these?
Understand, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with visiting an event for 10 minutes, then moving on to one’s home or work life. That’s what I did the night I left an event to join my wife for dinner on our wedding anniversary. Council members don’t want to play favorites with charitable groups, and so we try to attend every group’s events. And just because I can often pay for my own ticket doesn’t mean every current and future council member is just as fortunate and obliged, and I believe ALL are entitled to have a ticket paid for. (During the busy months, it can EASILY cost $500 – $600 per month to attend the various galas, luncheons and other forms of fundraising by charitable organizations and service clubs, and that’s for a single ticket to each, leaving spouses at home.)
On the matter of gifts and souvenirs, to use the recent groundbreaking ceremony for the new Ikea store as an example, being given a hardhat with “Ikea” on the front, along with a tiny statue of a dirt pile with a shovel commemorating the date of the event hardly taints an elected official.
But my problem is that none of these is ever mentioned – only the selfless and incomplete story is told during Reporting Out. I’d rather this portion of the meeting went back to being what it once was: A brief review of any conferences, or quasi-governmental or committee meetings each member attended since the last council session. By that standard, some council members, including myself, could go weeks without having something to announce. More important, we’d get to the public comment and business portions of the meeting as much as 30 to 45 minutes sooner. That’s why, since I took office, I’ve rarely spoken during the Reporting Out period, simply holding myself to the old practice.
Thus far, along with some other changes I’ve proposed discussing, the council has yet to formally take up this matter. I first requested council consideration of this and other council practices at my first full council meeting on May 5, 2015. In one of those coincidences few are likely to believe, just as I completed my efforts to create an alternative means of announcing calendars, the items I asked to discuss are finally on the brink of making it to an agenda in October.
My position on Reporting Out notwithstanding, members of the public ARE entitled to know at least generally how much time their elected representatives put into serving, and what they’re doing off the council dais. That’s why, when I first announced my personal policy on Reporting Out, I said I’d look for another means to make the information available.
THIS is that means. I’m going to try to post every month or two my schedule for the previous month/s.
This site is NOT paid for by the city, nor is the information compiled by city employees. (A team of indispensable Executive Assistants does keep and maintain our calendars.) I’m not using campaign funds for this site (I don’t have any). I’ve paid for the domain name myself, plus the few dollars it costs to use a web site editing program, and I’m using a bare-bones server site that’s provided free to all clients of the company that is my personal Internet Service Provider (ISP).
I will also occasionally use this site to expand on issues that come before the council, sometimes before the meeting, sometimes after. Honestly, I don’t what all I might post here, so I don’t want to pin myself down the first day out. If you have further questions or comments for me, please contact me at City Hall via WRogers@BurbankCA.gov, or by calling (818) 238-5850.
PS: With regard to meeting changes, and despite reports to the contrary, I do NOT support changes to the current rules or timing for “Oral Communications,” the public comment periods when members of the public can address the council on virtually any matter. I can’t claim I’d never support ANY proposed change, because maybe there’s an idea out there that would better serve the public’s interests, and I simply haven’t heard or thought of it yet. But generally, suggestions I’ve heard over the years would neither solve the issues they’re meant to fix, nor serve the majority of citizens who have nothing to do with the abuses that lead to calls for change.