Mayor John Mirisch’s transparency-focused Sunshine Task Force (agenda) held its inaugural meeting this past Tuesday. A handful of folks from all corners of Beverly Hills came together to talk about what can be done to make City Hall more open and to make public information more accessible. The mission as framed simply by the Mayor: “To shine a light upon the workings of city government to encourage public participation.” With two sitting councilmembers, two former mayors, various neighborhood leaders and a bike advocate at the table, there was no shortage of diagnoses or suggestions for a cure.
The Mayor put it bluntly: Lobbyists are able to manipulate the system, he said. Is that good for their clients or good for the residents? He was reprising a central theme of his recent campaign, “putting the residents first.” The Mayor suggested that vested interests and their paid representatives can have a corrosive effect on local democracy in a small city like ours if it’s not disclosed properly. Name-checking Bell, California, as a “worst case” of interests running amok while the media and residents paid insufficient attention, he said that “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” Thus he charged this informal advisory body with finding a ‘good governance’ balance.
If there was an overall theme to the discussion, it seemed to be that Beverly Hills City Hall often conducts business in insular fashion, like a citadel (for staff) ringed by a moat that keeps residents on the outside. For whom is City Hall working? If City Hall officials like to say the city is among the best, is that reflected in outcomes? Thomas White, Chairman of the Municipal League (and visible campaign season interlocutor) wasn’t certain it is. “This could be a vehicle for making this city as good as we claim that we are.” Or as the Mayor phrased it, “There is happy talk like ‘We’ve got the best of the best, but I don’t believe in happy talk.” He said that City Hall should not merely meet the minimum expectations but actually exceed them.
Lili Bosse offered an example of not meeting the higher bar. Before election in 2011, the Vice Mayor sat on the Planning Commission (the city’s only quasi-judicial policy-making body) so she knows that project noticing of the neighbors is a crucial part of the planning process. Indeed it is a legal requirement. But she noted that the city hews only to the minimum required notice – often only 500 feet radius. (For example, on our block one street over from the busy South Beverly Drive business district, the city’s noticing policy is even more restrictive. It adopts an odd-distance noticing radius which puts our side of the street just outside the required notice perimeter for permitting and licensing hearings.)
Mayor Mirisch also had planning notice on his mind. Reprising his complaint from the last City Council meeting, he said that notice to his Southeast area neighborhood about an Infinity dealership project lagged well behind its progress behind the scenes. Well before coming to Council for approval, staff and project representatives were exchanging inappropriate emails marked ‘confidential.’ That should have come to his attention either in his capacity as a sitting councilmember or as the organizer (and chair) of the city’s Southeast Task Force, he added. As it turned out, that project was progressing on a track parallel to the Southeast Task Force’s recommendations process. “Before they move a flowerpot in that area I should know about it,” the Mayor said.
Why are these problems? Because members of the public who show up to hearings often claim zero or only last-minute notice. It’s not uncommon that staff, when questioned, find that it’s been insufficient or otherwise not conducted properly. Either way it’s a headache for policymakers. But it also bakes-in inefficiencies that cost additional money, leave hard feelings, and prompt the formation of bodies like the Sunshine Task Force. And the Planning division in our experience is one of the tighter-run ships. (God forbid the communications office of the City Manager was required to hew to the complicated noticing required by the planning process.)
Attendees seemed to agree that was representative of a broader breakdown in governance that seems to serve the demands of vested interests and the desire of some city staffers but perhaps not serve the residents well. What could this Task Force do? These were suggested as a start:
- improve website usability (for example posting elected representatives’ email addresses);
- formulate higher standards/benchmarks for staff performance;
- appoint an ombudsman to ensure that residents are served and heard;
- encourage greater participation by the public (including at the voting booth) by involving the young and/or creating incentives for those not currently engaged in the governance process;
- create a lobbyist contact tracking system to post contacts with officials as soon as possible;
- use push notifications to reach the public with city information (we are the ‘smart city’ after all); and
- create public-facing material to educate stakeholders about how our local government works.
“It’s about leveling the playing field” between residents and staff, the Mayor said, and we agree. On many occasions we’ve suggested that City Hall is not meeting even the minimum standards for good governing or executing poorly on projects. For several years we’ve complained about everything from broken city website links to the use of closed, proprietary web services, for example, and even highlighted substandard services by city IT contractors. We also scolded City Hall for blocking all web search crawlers from indexing the city’s website and sent message after message to the city’s library to pressure staff to implement basic privacy protections for materials searches from library terminals. (That was a six-month effort.) We wonder why our library ever thought it a good idea to automatically redirect library website patrons to CBS.com.
So we’re very glad to be sitting on the Mayor’s Sunshine Task Force. We’re all champing at the bit to realize a better city government in line with City Hall claims of being the best that we can be.