Who Holds Beverly Hills City Hall to Account?

Beverly Hills sealWe’re simply not getting the best from our staff. Anyone who works with City Hall on a regular basis will tell you that. Enthusiasm is low, dedication is scarce, and across departments imagination is practically non-existent. We’re not progressing like other cities: where they integrate new modes of mobility on city streets and make real strides toward sustainability, we only talk the talk. Calls for safer streets are met with an impassive shrug, and why not? Staff can wait us out. Career tenure and generous compensation offer no incentive to work smarter or harder. Where’s the management vision that will take us into the 21st century?

City Manager staff performance policy statementWe the people can elect well-intentioned and highly motivated councilmembers, but we can’t directly hold our department staff accountable for lackluster performance. That’s the City Manager’s job, in theory. He or she establishes the performance expectations (at right). But are we really employing the “best of the best” when we hire staff? We pay near the top of the salary range ( 75th percentile) as a matter of policy but are we getting sufficient performance in return?

Consider our Public Works department. It’s primarily a paving & capital construction contract manager, a job it performs so well that adjacent Los Angeles neighborhoods want to accede to our city for smooth blacktop and trimmed trees. But the department falls down when it comes to mobility. Transportation is a core function of Public Works, but bike planning has been put on a back burner for many years. Our Bicycle Master Plan is 35 years old and in desperate need of an updated, but Public Works sees fit to only develop a ‘pilot’ program for possible improvements to selected bike routes. Or none at all. To add insult, the old plan is a damn sight better than what’s on the table today.

Of course we need the political will to progress, but even were that in place, program development and implementation falls to city departments. And they don’t have a very good track record for creative solutions to pressing problems. More often, staffers simply kick the can down the road so problems big and small only get deferred.

Who’s Watching City Hall?

City Hall performance suffers in part because there aren’t enough eyes on city business to encourage improvement. Indeed, who’s watching and encouraging City Hall to do better? Not the general public. The prevailing disinterest among stakeholders is evident in low turnout at the polls. Not the homeowner associations. They are quintessential single-interest organizations that react only to what’s coming to their backyard. There are few organizations advocating for change in Beverly Hills.

Nor will it be the media to the rescue. The Los Angeles Times has its hands full with Sacramento and Gateway Cities corruption. Here we have two local newspapers in town (both free) and an online ‘hyperlocal’ site, Patch, but the papers are about 50% classified advertising and Patch is no investigative powerhouse. It’s more of a community bulletin board.

Reserved-for-press

There is room in Beverly Hills for a more aggressive media watchdog!

Look to our Beverly Hills Courier to suggest the problem: rather than bring an investigative scrutiny to City Hall, this is largely an agenda driven paper. It gins up turmoil on sacred cow issues like Metro and Roxbury but succeeds less well on the traditional turf of the fourth estate like investigations and real muckraking. The Beverly Hills Weekly is more balanced but no more aggressive. Its main claim is that it’s not the Courier.

Until the public demands better, we’ll be stuck in a rut with the same old practices that militate against change.

Take communication with stakeholders, for example. Communication is an essential aspect of governing, yet when it comes to dealing with stakeholders our city comes up way short. Public Works, for example, gets a grade of D. Let us count the ways: Public Works Commission meeting minutes have yet to be posted for any meeting in 2012. (No commission staff reports are posted online either.) The city’s on-demand audiovisual library holds only two commission meeting videos (nothing more fresh than mid-2010). And there are times when the monthly meeting of the Public Works Commission isn’t even noticed online in advance.

Public Works Department information kiosk

Public Works Department information kiosk

Even the easiest communication task of all eludes Public Works: stocking its own information carousel in the department’s lobby. Indeed it is always conspicuously bare (at right). Yet Public Works is our city’s second biggest budget line item after public safety in the proposed city operations budget.

Why harp on audiovisual stuff and a silly information carousel? It’s important that commission business be accessible to stakeholders, of course, and it would be useful to know the responsibilities of our second biggest not-safety department. And then there’s performance metrics: the city’s own 2010-2011 budget identified both the timely posting of meeting video and communications via the lobby as indications of department performance. By such measures Public Works is not performing well enough.

Budget document not legibile

Difficult to understand the city’s proposed FY 2012-13 budget when one can’t read it!

But it’s not just Public Works. Our city’s entire communications apparatus is broken. At Better Bike we often have to chase down public information that should be easily available. Maybe it is link to a staff report mentioned on a City Council agenda that is broken. Or a relevant referenced document appears nowhere on the website. Or a key public document like the city budget is posted in a form that’s not readable (at least to this Mac user).

Then there are the ‘special’ meetings that pop up out of nowhere, sometimes noticed only on the Civic Center corkboard. (‘Special’ is a designation that circumvents the state’s 72 hours required advance notice.)

Make no mistake: this is not about convenience. Stakeholders often complain to City Council and the Planning Commission that official notice has not been properly tendered – a complaint with legal merit that can (and has) complicated governing. But we’re too familiar with this kind of notice. Nearly every meeting between the Public Works staff and bike advocates last Summer into Spring was routinely noticed only 24 hours in advance – at 5pm the day before the meeting.

Maybe it’s worth noting that the transportation planner and Deputy Director for transportation (both part of Public Works) reserve 20% and 30% of their working hours respectively for “customer service,” according to the part of the FY 2011-12 adopted city budget that we can read. Shouldn’t that include standard for outreach like timely notice? And more information posted to the Public Works website? Have a look at the less-than-user friendly Bike Plan Update Committee webpage for an indication of the underwhelming effort put into the bike route pilot process.

When we bring these things to the attention of city staff, they offer to send the MIA document or apologize for some or other glitch that precluded advance meeting notice, but they just don’t want to address the underlying problem: City Hall is just not communicating effectively with stakeholders. City of Los Angeles has over ninety neighborhood councils, and most of these voluntary organizations do a much better job of communicating with its stakeholders, in our opinion.

Where is the Internal Oversight?

Managing City Hall effectively is the City Manager’s job, isn’t it? After all, it is suggested by the job title. Cities hire a City Manager because part-time City Councils are not supposed to micromanage staff; they have important policy decisions to make. But the City Manager is supposed to manage the managers who manage the staff. In departments like Public Works and offices like Communications, who’s doing the managing? The failure to address some basics like timely online posting of committee and commission meetings reflects a lack of appreciation for good governance principles.

So we have to agree with the Beverly Hills Courier newspaper when it rails this week against “bloated [city] staff, bloated compensation, huge retirement payouts, and reduced service.” We can’t say it better. While it pains us to side with the Courier, even a broken clock shows the right time twice a day, and the Courier gets this one right.

When we look at our city’s vision statement this sticks out:

Beverly Hills is known throughout the region, state, and nation as a leading edge, innovative community in its government, business, and technology programs. (Vision Statement #3)

While the vision talks about innovation, we see something different: a city offering excellent salaries and generous pensions to staffers but delivering a mediocre return to stakeholders. Crucially, we see no commitment among staff to a better Beverly Hills.

The long-term challenge is that we don’t lose pace relative to other cities. When we become complacent, when we’re a place for good emergency response and tidy streets only, we will lose shopper and businesses to more progressive cities. That’s already happening. Just as shoppers and business owners have the option to locate elsewhere, we too must look elsewhere for better models of city management because we’re not seeing effective management here when it comes to the principles of good government.

At Better Bike we work for a better, more mobile and less auto-dependent Beverly Hills, but without the support and vision from staff we’ll only remain what we are today: a traffic-clogged burgh that makes other cities look more enviable every day.