Setting the City’s Agenda

City Manager dominates the org chartThe Beverly Hills Courier ran a cover article last week titled, ‘Mirisch Says City Manager Kolin “Usurped” Authority.’ Attention-grabbing headlines are a staple in the tabloid’s toolbox precisely because they beg a look. And indeed the Courier has been known to swing a provocative headline now and then. But ‘usurps’ is a serious charge, and it merits attention because the City Manager already exercises control. Does he exercise too much control? Let’s look more closely at the City Manager and the Courier’s claim.

By way of a refresher, recall that the City Council makes policy. We elect those councilmembers to act in our stead in a representative democracy (even in a town of forty thousand). But in a general law city with a Council-City Manager form of government, the Council makes policy and provides direction while the City Manager pulls the levers. He makes the trains run. He manages program implementation and hires department managers. He defines expectations and establishes performance measures.

According to our City Council Policy and Operations Manual – a public document not available on our city’s website, by the way) the City Manager

is responsible to the City Council and directs and coordinates the various departments. The City Manager is responsible for appointing all department directors and authorizing all other personnel positions. The City Council authorizes positions through the budget process; based upon that authorization, the City Manager makes appointments.

The City Manager also has a role in “managing” the City Council meeting agenda, according to the city’s website for the City Manager. But rules for who actually sets the agenda are somewhat oblique, and that may have injected some confusion in this latest kerfuffle between the Mayor and the City Manager.

Usurpation?

The gist of the ‘usurpation’ claim is that Mayor Mirisch asked his colleagues on the Council to discuss their limited role in department chief hires with an eye, perhaps, to taking a more active role in the process. Hiring is governed by a specific process as described in the City Council Policy Operations Manual (p. 30-32) but has historically been walled-off from public participation. Having the Council take a more active role would give the public a greater opportunity to chime in, he evidently believes (and we agree).

Before the Mayor’s hiring discussion item was brought up in study session on July 16th, both the Mayor and Vice Mayor were known by the City Manager to be unable to attend. We’ll let the The Courier explain, starting off with Matt Lopez’s provocative lead: “Tensions continue to fester at Beverly Hills City Hall between Mayor John Mirisch and City Manager Jeff Kolin.”

The issue centers on a re-scheduled City Council study session on July 16. Generally on every other Tuesday, the City Council meets for a 2:30 p.m. “study session,” followed by a formal council meeting at 7 p.m. A brief meeting had originally been scheduled for July 16, but Kolin said Mirisch requested to cancel it after the July 2 council meeting because Vice Mayor Lili Bosse was to be out of town. A revised council calender [sic] was sent out to all council members, showing the meeting as canceled. Mirisch said he never asked to cancel it, but rather have all the few scheduled items moved to the night session…Kolin had scheduled the meeting while Mirisch was away and had placed two items [including the discussion to review the city’s hiring process] on the 10-item agenda that were specifically requested by Mirisch.

At the July meeting the item was discussed. Two councilmembers, Julian Gold and Willie Brien, pronounced themselves satisfied that the hiring process worked well. So did councilmember Nancy Krasne. But she alone suggested that they hold the item over for consideration with the Mayor in attendance. After all, he did request that the issue be discussed, she added.

The department hiring process item was discussed at the next study session (August 6th) during which the Council agreed that the current process should stand. The Council would provide direction to the City Manager but the City Manager would honcho the hiring process. No change in policy.

The dispute really concerns who manages the Council calendar and who sets the Council’s meeting agenda(s). For the July meeting, the City Manager claimed to the Courier that the Mayor can’t unilaterally cancel a meeting. He said that he received requests from two other councilmembers to go ahead with that meeting, and decided to do so. He calls the scheduling of the study session a misunderstanding rather than, say, a usurpation of the Mayor’s prerogative.

The Mayor disagrees and apparently sees a work-around to cut him out of the governing loop. “[The City Manager] seems to be usurping the role of the Mayor in setting the agenda, which is the job of elected officials not a bureaucrat,” he told the Courier. Regardless of how or why it happened, such a scheduling mishap is not likely to happen again.

But the issue of who sets the Council’s agenda is the more intriguing one. At first glance it seems like governing arcana, right? To most stakeholders the City Council agenda simply appears on the city’s website or in their email inbox. We can decide if we want to learn more or perhaps attend to comment on an issue. But the agenda shapes the policy discussion, of course, so it has a major impact upon the civic conversation.

The Backstory

What makes this particular bit of would-be governing arcana most interesting is that there exists a backstory. You see, the Mayor has been a vocal proponent of changing the city hall culture to (in his words) serve the residents rather than “special interests.” Specifically Mr. Mirisch wants to change how city departments do business in order to make city operations more transparent and accessible to the people, and to make staff more accountable too. He’s called for greater lobbyist disclosure, for example, and (in this case) he wants for Council a stronger hand in hiring department chiefs.

His call for an open city hall is not unique. Both Lili Bosse and Nancy Krasne have expressed similar concerns. Krasne made it an explicit theme in her campaign this year with an anti-establishment platform that featured an implicit rebuke of special interests with the claim, “I am not beholden to anyone but you, the residents of our city.” The Mayor echoed his reelection campaign theme with the slogan, “Still putting the residents first,” and his promise, “My only special interest is you.”

Mirisch flyer putting residents first

The Mirisch campaign always put residents front-and-center

Courier anti-Brien callout box

Courier’s anti-endorsement of Brien in the 2013 election

During the race we called it a campaign waged by establishment and anti-establishment camps. At times it was a bitter campaign with the West Hollywood Democratic Club putting its thumb on the scale for Brien with pointed mailers and the Courier going to bat for Mirisch with sharp endorsements (and anti-endorsements, blue box at right).

Not surprisingly, tensions have bubbled up in Council after that election. Councilmembers Gold and Brien tend to side with the status quo while Mirisch and Bosse tend to advocate for changes. Krasne is a wild card. This year Mayor Mirisch convened a ‘Sunshine Task Force‘ (we sit on it) to make recommendations for greater transparency and open government but councilmember Gold recently questioned on the Council floor the relevance (or was it the legitimacy?) of the task force.

So this backstory makes the City Manager’s move to hear the Mayor’s hiring item while the Mayor and Vice Mayor were away seem questionable at best. Clif Smith, the publisher of the Courier, evidently thought so too, so the news item made it to the front page.

Who Sets the City Council Agenda, Anyway?

So who really is supposed to set the city’s agenda? The state’s Brown Act specifies a number of conditions that must be met for a public meeting, including the timely posting in a regular posting location of the agenda, but it is silent on how that agenda should take shape. Agenda-setting is hardly arcana if public concerns don’t make it to Council chambers, and controlling the agenda is a pillar theme in political science and communications circles. Yes, even in a local government of forty thousand!

Let’s look again at the Policy Operations Manual. It hints at a City Manager’s role: “The City Clerk provides staff and administrative support to City Council including preparation of City Council meeting agendas under direction of the City Manager (p. 15).” But does that refer to the ‘informal’ afternoon meeting agenda (items for discussion and direction) or the ‘formal’ nighttime meeting agenda (policy-making) or both? It’s not clear.

The agenda-setting section (p. 61) does make a distinction between informal and formal meetings. Where “any City Councilmember may request an item be placed on a future Informal Meeting Agenda,” only the formal meeting agenda allows the Mayor an agenda-setting prerogative:  “Any City Councilmember may request an item be placed on a future Formal Meeting Agenda with the consent of the Mayor” (p. 61, emphasis added).

But in this instance of claimed usurpation, the Manual‘s procedures for agenda-setting seem to cut both ways for the Mayor and the City Manager. The Manual says that the councilmember requesting the item “shall present the item to the City Council” and that’s without regard to informal vs. formal meetings. Yet clearly that didn’t happen in this instance; the meeting went ahead without the Mayor’s presentation of the department hiring item.

Postscript

Did it make a difference? The full Council did hear the Mayor’s item at the August 6th meeting but decided not to change the hiring procedures. So the City Manager still enjoys wide latitude to select candidates and make the final decision while councilmembers make suggestions and provide input. But that’s all; there is no new oversight function as the Mayor sought.

An additional item was discussed at the behest of Mayor Mirisch: Whether items placed on the agenda by an be discussed only if the councilmember is present at the meeting. Here too the Council by consensus elected to make no change. Nancy Krasne highlighted the electeds’ commitment to attend meetings and Willie Brien agreed. Julian Gold expressed concern that deferred items could only delay consideration unnecessarily. And Lili Bosse framed it as a matter of courtesy but that perhaps a rule change wasn’t necessary. The Mayor agreed that the councilmember could withdraw the item if necessary.

Our view: In this kerfuffle, it seems like the Mayor and Vice Mayor were indeed worked-around by scheduling the study session when they couldn’t attend. That’s a governance issue more interesting for its backstory than its practical impact as the discussion turned out. But tension is never far below the surface in Council chambers these days, which makes scheduling sleight-of-hand all the more suspect. We’ll have more to say about the city’s organization chart in an upcoming post. Until then, let’s hope that this instance of agenda-setting is a lesson learned by all.