Sunshine Task Force #2 Recap

The Beverly Hills Sunshine Task Force met for a second time this week following on last month’s initial meeting, wherein participants highlighted instances where the city falls short on sharing information. In that meeting, several new initiatives were proposed to nudge the city toward open government principles. On this month’s agenda was a staff presentation on West Hollywood, Walnut Creek and little-known city of Villa Park’s efforts. But in this 1-hour meeting we focused instead on proposals for an ombudsman and greater lobbying disclosure. There was scant time to address other issues as suggested last month much less ‘next steps.’ Here’s the recap.

Recall that the Sunshine Task Force was created by Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch to “ensure greater transparency and public involvement in local government operations.” The informal effort is a response to the oft-repeated criticism that City Hall functions for special interests rather than for the city’s collective interest. The Task Force is the first-ever body focused on making the city’s business more accessible to the people and in that mission underscores the Mayor’s campaign slogan, “putting the people first.” (Disclosure: this Better Bike organizer sits on the committee.)

The Sunshine Task Force is composed of two liaison members from the City Council, Mayor and Vice-Mayor Lili Bosse, and nine former officials and active stakeholders. Staffers include Deputy City Manager for Public Affairs Cheryl Friedling, Community Outreach Manager Huma Ahmed, and Deputy City Clerk Lourdes Sy-Rodriguez.

On this meeting’s agenda was a staff presentation of transparency initiatives from three California cities – West Hollywood, Walnut Creek and Villa Park. Participants also received a very useful matrix of sunshine reform ordinances from San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose, which was cited as a model.

But committee discussion on several proposals cut short the staff presentation, unfortunately, so we didn’t get the full report form the staff. Next month we will discuss it having digested the handout.

Front and center were the Mayor’s proposal for a new position of ombudsman and a resurrected initiative to require greater disclosure of paid lobbyists so that they are more easily identified when advocated in Council chambers and commission meetings.

Ombudsman Proposal

As framed by Mayor Mirisch, the ombudsman would find her place between stakeholders and City Council and stand apart from the traditional city heirarchy. In keeping with the Mayor’s campaign theme, the ombudsman would chiefly represent the interests of the stakeholders to elected officials and perhaps function as an information gatherer or a trouble-shooter. Because the responsibilities of the ombudsman have not yet been formalized, we didn’t discuss specifics but instead talked about whether the position was ready for a formal proposal to Council.

The need for an ombudsman, the Mayor said, was evidenced by frustration voiced at this meeting (and elsewhere) that city staff reports that didn’t appear to reflect an objective point-of-view. (Staff reports are provided by staff to commissions, committees and Council in order to describe an issue under consideration and provide the necessary context for legislative, quasi-legislative or advisory action.) Task Force member (and Mirisch campaign backer) Marilyn Gallup noted that a recent Planning staff report for a proposed AT&T  communications towers program hardly read as objective; instead seemed to support the project application.

Discussion also touched on whether an ombudsman could help residents better navigate the metaphorical corridors of City Hall. Though Task Force member (and Municipal League chair) Thomas White remarked that the Community Outreach Manager was indispensable. But few residents are likely familiar with Ms. Ahmed. When it comes to working with the city, where does one turn? The city’s website ‘Ask Bev’ function is not optimal, and unlike a larger city we have no ‘dial 311’ service for routine inquiries.

The ombudsman position was introduced in budget sessions this year but not yet formalized as to job description (much less funded). Lili Bosse and some members of the Task Force felt that more information was necessary before discussion could proceed meaningfully on the proposal.

Lobbyist Disclosure Proposal

The other key item under discussion was the lobbying disclosure initiative. Our city currently requires lobbyists to register via a paper form, but critics (including the Mayor) say that the form asks too little and, perhaps more important, the submitted information doesn’t move beyond the paper form. Technically it is available to the public, but in practice is not very accessible.

The proposal would revisit the scope of information collected on the form and collate it in a searchable database. Today there is no lobbying information available online (even the form itself is not posted). A database could connect lobbyist activities to specific Council outcomes. The objective, Thomas White said, was establishing a “nexus” between the lobbyist, her motivation, and the beneficiaries (including parent or subsidiary companies).  The database could even connect the registrations here to those maintained by other cities.

The Mayor that we consider resurrecting the lobbyist badge idea. He noted that an earlier badge proposal was defeated 3-2 in Council. That is, after an earlier vote of 4-1 in favor. “Some powerful lobbyist got to a councilmember and got them to change their vote,” he said. (This was under a prior Council). There was no clear objection to moving forward with the lobbyist disclosure initiative (details TBA).

Staff Reports

What sparked the discussion about the ombudsman position was the observation of bias in staff reports – specifically one for the AT&T project recently before Council. (The project itself has sparked some controversy about notification standards and due diligence apart from the staff report.) Task Force members expressed some varying opinions about the quality of staff reports, but it was the suggestions of remedy that prompted an interesting debate.

The question: How to make staff reports bias-neutral and overall make them of highest quality? One suggestion was to run them by an ombudsman to flag obvious issues of bias, etc. While obvious problems might get flagged, the variety of staff reports must preclude hiring an ombudsman with the requisite knowledge for all substantive activity areas. (Shouldn’t that be a staff manager’s responsibility anyway?) Another suggestion concerned making the staff report available for public review and comment. Could better staff reports be crowdsourced?

We suggested that CEQA offers a template. The CEQA process is a legally-mandated state process for the disclosure of environmental effects arising from a proposed project or change in policy. Crucially it includes a draft (DEIR) and then a public comment phase, the products from which then fed back for agency comment and it’s all folded into a final environmental report (EIR).

At this point the discussion turned to the commission appointment process and the role of the ombudsman, but suggested no immediate resolution for the staff report bias issue. The then meeting adjourned after only an hour with a parting recommendation to members to review the transparency matrix and think about how to prioritize 1st and 2nd priority issues and proposals for the next meeting.

Our Take

The ombudsman. We agree that it’s too early to move the proposal to council even for direction. With only two meetings under the belt, the Task Force has yet to identify and prioritize the opportunities for action – much less develop a palette of proposals or even focus on a single proposition like the ombudsman. We see the greatest promise for the ombudsman as a (proactive) guide to city government and a (reactive) problem-solver.

For the stakeholder who’s unfamiliar with how the city operates, where to turn to unlock the mysteries of local governance is an unknown. The city publishes an official City Council Policy and Operations Manual for officials, but what about stakeholders? We won’t find it anywhere on the city’s website. This could be job one for the Task Force. Maybe an ombudsman would be a useful point-of-access.

And certainly when stakeholders aren’t getting the info they need from staff, the ombudsman could step in. For example, we’ve asked that the manual be posted but it hasn’t been. It’s not available though our library either (as many city documents aren’t.) The ombudsman could be the next step. One could ask, “Shouldn’t this key process document be made available to the stakeholders?” After all, we provide a candidate manual for City Council aspirants. Shouldn’t they know what the job’s about?

Lobbying disclosure. This has much promise. When we visited Council chambers a few weeks ago, we unwittingly sat in AT&T gulch. A dozen or more black-suited AT&T representatives and lobbyists crowded the benches. Who were they? No identifying information. No badges. When we followed the Gateway planning process (a high-stakes gambit to change our muni code to allow office buildings around the Wilshire-SM Starbucks) we saw a rotating cast of familiar characters hit the planning commission speaker’s podium. Those included fixture Murray Fischer and former Mayor Linda Briskman who advocated for interested parties. Neither formally identified themself as a lobbyist. Those two spoke up, at least. What of the nameless black suits hanging around City Hall who do their work in the offices or behind the scenes?

We believe that paid lobbyists need to be fully disclosed, their information and clients available to internet search, and properly identified at the podium (perhaps badged). And we’d also like to see that lobbyist database mashed-up in maps that sow past projects and clients so we can all see how the interests align in Beverly Hills.

General comments on the Task Force process. The committee is off to a strong and enthusiastic start. Leadership is strong and very capable. There is no dearth of perspective, expertise and experience on the panel. But this 1-hour meeting, once per month is too brief to make any headway. So we really didn’t have an opportunity to address ‘next steps’ on the meeting agenda.

Perhaps we need working groups to piece apart the puzzle by focusing on the key proposals. An alternating, less-formal mid-month meet-up could provide face-to-face time to discuss items before they get to the main meeting. The city will make space available if we request it.

We could also benefit from a means to disseminate information. The city’s Task Force page is bare-bones. Because the city looks to the Task Force as an informal group, we don’t enjoy the support that a commission would (of course).

We at Better Bike have created Sunshine Task Force page where we can post materials referenced at meetings and also material we have found in our own work for the committee. We’ve also set up an automated e-mailer to facilitate group emailing. These DIY steps are provisional until better tools come along. Until then, point your browser to http://betterbike.org/sunshine!