Did you know that Beverly Hills broadcasts a cable TV television station with its own talk show called Inside Beverly Hills (Time Warner channel 10)? The show opens a window onto the process behind the politics and until Rudy Cole, the city’s unofficial political wonk and host, passed recently, we saw it as a big step that City Council took last year to reach the public. In honor of Sunshine Week (“open government is good government”) we will revisit one episode of Inside to celebrate Rudy’s handiwork and to learn how the public fits into this we the people enterprise, local government.
Sunshine Week is not just a feel-good celebration of the virtues of open government. According to the proponents behind the initiative, the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Sunshine Week (March 10-16) is our opportunity to actively press public officials to share more about the business of the people with the people. To demand more from those who govern on our behalf. To move beyond ‘transparency’ as a platitude to give those governed a reason to become involved.
The Sunshine folks mean business: they’re providing a toolkit of resources (like state-by-state open government guides, for example California) and even a handy Sunshine Week Open Government Proclamation template that affirms our right to know. (We might just put that to our City Manager and Council at an upcoming meeting!) In that spirit, let’s celebrate Rudy Cole for his persistent (and characteristically laconic) inquiry into municipal government and the people behind it.
On his TV show, Inside Beverly Hills, and through his column in the Weekly, Cole kept us apprized. He had his finger on the zeitgeist (such as it is in Beverly Hills). He knew local government well and tapped his friends in high places (such as they are) to introduce us to those whom make our business their business. Cole moved past bare news items and cut through the clatter to handicap elections in a calm and dignified manner.
Undeniably Cole was of the establishment, but didn’t necessarily mete the bounds of the establishment turf. He didn’t assume a defensive crouch or defend the ramparts of City Hall. He just didn’t have skin in that particular game. Cole he was a longtime advocate for the business community, sure, but unlike the shadow lobbyists that hover around City Hall he didn’t cloak his vested interests.
When we looked at candidate statements to see who’s contributing, we found that plenty of folks have a proprietary interest in city policy. The statements are replete with contributions from real estate-related interests. If Beverly Hills is a company town, it’s a land company that owns it.
But many more community stakeholders don’t have a proprietary interest per se but do take an everyday interest in where they live. Yet many don’t bother to vote. And of those who cast ballots, few turn up at a committee, commission, or City Council meeting. Why not? Are people fully satisfied? We’ve long said that City Hall didn’t make the case for people to become involved. We felt that elected leaders and appointed officials seemed to believe that we the people had a defined and limited role in local government.
Rudy’s Reform Agenda?
Whenever a neighbor asks us about some or other nuisance and how to make the city change it, we wanted to say, “Go watch Rudy Cole! He talked about that department on his show!” Rudy Cole was in his element on Inside Beverly Hills. Sitting around a small table with officials against a black backdrop, he asked no-nonsense probing questions in order to pull back the curtain on municipal government.
In the March 2012 episode Rudy explored the council-manager form of government in Beverly HIlls with guests City Manager Jeff Kolin; councilmember Julian Gold; and former councilmember and Mayor Linda Briskman. He covers the basics (essential watching) but returns again and again to reform. Referring to a hypothetical situation but with an actual case in mind, perhaps, he asked his guests, Wouldn’t a reform-minded councilmember with his own agenda present a challenge to consensus?
Of Brisman he asked, “How did you handle Council members who wanted something on the agenda that wasn’t supported by other Council members?” She said that she viewed it as an opportunity to have the issue vetted in study session. Then Cole parried: What if one councilmember is elected and has a total minority view? “Say he wants to have hearings,” he said. “Shouldn’t he have any item placed on the agenda…?”
Briskman tacked to the right. Ideas should first be vetted with staff and the Mayor, she advised. “If the staff and the Mayor don’t see any harm in it…” That seemed to endorse a more streamlined, establishment-friendly process for the City Council – the standard operating procedure for a long time. Yet Cole persisted:
You can imagine a Council, this one or any other, where there is somebody who has been elected and who represents a view that has not been here before….and he’s just defeated one of the Council [members’] colleague or friends and you don’t want him or her to have any agenda items…but he represents a constituency. Not to allow his issues to come before the Council?
Councilmember Julian Gold replied, “It’s wrong in a public process to say, ‘No, we’re not going to talk about it.” But an issue that “nobody thinks is important” doesn’t necessarily have to move forward to a full Council discussion, he said. City Manager Jeff Kolin emphasized the need for consensus as a necessary step before the Council would put the issue on a formal (7pm) agenda. “But there is no structural guarantee that it will make it to the formal agenda?” Cole clarified. Nope. Nothing in the City Council Policy and Operations Manual suggests that the minority voice gets heard.
This 2012 Inside Beverly Hills episode was taped as the Roxbury Park issue was heating up. Neighbors had questioned the size of the proposed community building, and there was some Council disagreement over the direction of the renovation. Most importantly, there was a wedge emerging between a 3-member majority and the 2-member Council minority over the quality of staff support and even the working relationship between Council and staff. Marathon study sessions surfaced the issues as councilmembers Lili Bosse and John Mirisch looked more closely at project specifics. The issue was resolved with consensus (and a smaller project) eventually, but the discussion put the ‘reform’ question on the table.
Balance of Power in City Hall
The park issue and others too highlighted the respective roles of the Council and the City Manager (who works for the city on a contract basis). News outlets generally don’t cover this aspect of the governing process; it’s too in-the-weeds. Yet it’s important.
In our appearances at Council meetings plugging a bike plan, lanes and racks, for example, we’ve rarely seen City Manager Kolin join the discussion. (Around City Hall he’s known as a cyclist.) But as the chief translator of Council’s policy priorities into implementation by staff he’s a major player. We can’t help but think that over the past three years we’ve worked this issue, some responsibility for the city’s go-slow approach to safety for those who ride must fall with him.
Cole examined this balance of power in IBH. He seemed to have on his mind some of our Council’s contretemps when he asked the City Manager, “Is there a severe difference between cities and how they related to city managers? Any sharp differences in how the city manager functions” in other cities? Kolin replied:
I don’t think there are sharp differences…There are frequently situations where individual council members come from different backgrounds and are used to having more control….To develop a relationship where you’re welcoming input, feedback, coaching from councilmembers yet defining where their responsibility ends and mine starts.
“You can’t say that there has been one city where the Council has taken more or less control?” Cole asks, Not really, Kolin replied. Then turning to Gold, Cole asked,
Do you like the system the way it works? How would change the relationship between City Council and city manager? Are there reforms that we could do internally, or in the state legislature or through constitutional means?
Gold stuck to generalities. There were efficiencies in the council-manager form of government, he said, and suggested that it worked fine as far as he was concerned. “It’s complicated and wrong to micromanage day-to-day. It’s not the role of a governing body.”
Both Kolin and Gold were content with the balance of power. Kolin suggested some territorial concerns while Gold seemed disinclined to tilt toward a more activist Council. This contrasts markedly with a reform agenda, where push-back against the current arrangements becomes evident particularly where staff management and development issues are concerned.
Cole couldn’t leave well enough alone. He then followed up with Kolin with a focused question: “Are there reforms being considered?” Kolin preferred to focus on the normative. “My profession is putting more emphasis on transparency and accountability,” he said. Referring to management scandals in other cities, he highlighted the city manager’s professional responsibility but also saw a role for public oversight. “It’s [about] emphasizing transparency, citizen involvement, accountability and that we believe the public has to be involved in this form of government – along with the Council and our professional employees.”
The Role of the Public?
What of the role of the public? Our experience is that members of the public are welcomed and always treated very courteously, but we perceive a divide between City Hall and those whom it serves. In this election, candidate John Mirisch put a fine point on it when his campaign adopted the slogan, “Putting residents first.”
Kolin said, “It’s the citizens,” but he then described a tailored role for the public in municipal government:
Their involvement is key. We see them represented in our commission, boards and committees…. We have eleven boards and commissions and we’re seeing fifty or seventy people involved providing policy reocmmendations and making decisions….
Where Gold earlier called the Council “the ears of the community” and Briskman prosaically described the Council as a “funnel” for public concerns, the City Manager framed public involvement as volunteer service. That is, participation within the prescribed structures for participation in Beverly Hills: commissions, committees, and the ad-hoc panels that tap team players. Indeed our city likes to organize participation and welcomes our input on matters like the 100th centennial celebration, say.
And we really do call them team players, by the way. Beverly Hills holds every year a team-building exercise appropriately called ‘Team Beverly Hills.’ From its ranks committees and commissions members are drawn, subject to an application process and ultimately Council appointment. (Read more in the 2012 staff report.) Team Beverly Hills seems purpose-built for co-opting those who would question the policies and policy process within City Hall.
What about the value of public participation outside of prescribed structures? Council patiently tolerates gadfly types but constitutionally seems to have no stomach for change. And we’re cool to the reform agenda, preferring consensus around establishment priorities (like the centennial).
We asked one commissioner how receptive staff was to new initiatives to gauge the prospect of nudging City Hall in a different direction. Not very receptive, the commissioner said, pointing the finger at the management tier. The commissioner did hold out hope for making change from the inside, though. While I don’t doubt the commissioner’s sincerity, the years-long climb up through the ranks of our lower-traction commissions gives pause. Even if public participation is one of the three legs of the governance stool (as Kolin said), it sure seems less sturdy even if you’re a member of the public working the inside track for change.
Maybe that’s what Rudy Cole was getting at in his persistent questions about reform. What would Rudy Cole have said about this election outcome? Might he have recognized change coming to the establishment constituency inside and outside City Hall? We’ve now chosen three councilmembers in two elections who have explicitly endorsed municipal government for the people. (As we observed earlier.) Would he see little cause for worry, confident that the status quo would endure here? Did he even have a horse in that race?
In a different life, Rudy Cole would have been an academic digging into questions of power in public administration from a perch in the ivory tower. As it happened, though, he worked the inside track in City Hall as a citizen-researcher, digging into the actual machinations of municipal government in our own little citadel, City Hall.