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Workshop clarifies laws for officials

By John Geluardi Daily Planet Staff
Thursday March 08, 2001

Over 100 representatives from the city’s myriad commissions got pointers from the city attorney Tuesday about avoiding conflicts of interest, conducting legal public meetings and the general role of the commissions. 

“It’s really important that the commissioners understand what’s behind these laws,” City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque said. “It makes things less confusing and not so esoteric.” 

As proof that Berkeley is politically active, there are 45 commissions and boards that serve the city. According to the City Manager Weldon Rucker, most cites have four or five commissions.  

All commissioners are volunteers and are appointed because of specialized knowledge or an interest in serving their community. The mayor and councilmembers are required to appoint one commissioner each to every commission. 

Many commissioners said the meeting was useful because it demystified the complexities of the state’s open meeting law and confusion caused by conflicts of interest. 

Many commissioners paid special attention to the workshop’s conflict of interest section. Since November, Albuquerque has issued a spate of opinions that said seven commissioners on three commissions had conflicts of interest with some of the issues their commissions consider.  

Three commissioners from the Landmarks Preservation Commission filed a lawsuit Monday against the city to have their full authority on the commission reinstated. Commissioner John Selawsky resigned his post and Commissioner Gordon Wozniak has refused to acknowledge Albuquerque’s opinion at all. Three commission meetings have collapsed in confusion because of the allegations of conflict of interest. 

Albuquerque pointed out that California has many laws covering several types of conflicts of interest while some states on the East Coast have fewer laws and as a result more corruption. She said many well-intentioned commissioners can have a conflict of interest and not be aware of it. 

“Common law and court decisions say everybody is a human being and good people can be influenced on a subliminal level,” she said.  

Albuquerque gave the commissioners a list of situations that should prompt them to seek additional information about conflict of interest from her office. One was economic conflict from a job or business. Another was related to city commissioners who consider city contracts that might inadvertently benefit them. And the third addressed commissioners who belong to other associations and boards. 

“In the early 1980s when Berkeley was writing its conflict of interest code, it was decided that Berkeley residents care more about their causes than they do about their financial investments,” she said. “So if you are an officer on any other organizations you have to disclose that to the city as if it were a business.” 

Another issue the commissioners were concerned about is the Ralph M. Brown Act adopted by the state in 1953 after a series of articles about secret government meetings ran in The San Francisco Chronicle. 

The law covers all public meetings from regular posted meeting to e-mail between commissioners. According to a guidebook given to the commissioners, the law has been a source of controversy and confusion since its inception. 

The guidebook further stated that many elected officials find the Brown Act unnatural claiming that “the techniques that serve so well in business - the working lunch, the private lobbying and compromises, the slow evolution of a project or decision - is no longer possible.” 

On March 20, the City Council will consider writing local laws that strengthen and clarify the Brown Act. 

Paul Hogarth who was elected to the city’s Rent Stabilization Board last November said he found the Brown Act information useful. 

“It’s nice to know what you can and can’t write about in a e-mail to a friend of yours who happens to be on the same board as you,” he said. 

Rucker addressed the relationship between the commission and city staff that act as secretaries to the commissions. There has historically been a low level tension and mistrust between the two because of what Deputy City Manager Phil Kamlarz called a “schizophrenic relationship.” 

“Being a commission secretary means you have to walk a fine line between the city and the commission,” said Barbara Attard, commission secretary for the Police Review Commission. “They often have competing interests and you have to be able to finesse things.” 

Some commissioners complained about secretaries taking too long to write up the minutes of meetings and delaying City Council action on recommendations by not submitting reports in a timely manner. 

Rucker said commission secretaries are responsible for writing up each meeting’s minutes, preparing written agendas and following up on correspondence in addition to their regular duties with city departments. 

Kamlarz said the commissions function well sometimes and other times not depending on the experience level of commissioners and staff. But he said the commission system is worthwhile. “The city gets experts to volunteer their time, energy and the benefit of their experience,” he said. “And that’s what the commission system is all about, community input.” 

Rucker said the annual workshops have been so popular with the commissioners that he was considering having them twice a year. “There’re good because the commissions can get isolated from city departments and a sort folklore takes over,” he said. “It’s good to see people face to face for clarification and demystification.”