Commentary: City Council Should Heed Public Input on Budget By BUDGETWATCH

Friday June 03, 2005

As members of BudgetWatch we carefully monitor the development and adoption process of each budget cycle. We appreciate the work that city staff and the City Council must undertake to balance each budget. That being said, we want to say that we were st unned by the council’s action on April 19 to eliminate the Citizens Budget Review Commission. We strongly protest this action on the following grounds: 

• It was probably illegal due to lack of adequate notice on the agenda.  

• It eliminated on-going co mment by an official citizens body regarding the city’s most pressing and important issue.  

• It is discourteous to every citizen who gives service to the community as a member of a board or commission.  

• It is discouraging to members of the public who want to believe that a citizen can have some impact on what is contained in the budget. 

The City Council’s action was probably illegal due to lack of adequate notice on the agenda. The report, City Commissions—Reducing Staff Support and Frequency of Meetings as a Cost Reduction Measure, placed on the City Council agenda by City Manager Kamlarz, placed four recommendations before the council. While two of those recommendations referred to consolidating two commissions, neither of which was the Citizens Budget Review Commission (CBRC), no recommendation referred to elimination of any board or commission. The only mention of the CBRC is in Attachment 1 in which it appears as one in a list of 45 boards/commissions for which “Current Frequency of Monthly Meetings” and “Proposed Frequency of Monthly Meetings” are shown in detail for each.  

An e-mail dated April 18 from Sandy Englund on behalf of Phil Kamlarz to various staff members requested that staff members “view the staff report (mentioned above) an d proposed recommendations that may or may not affect your commission.” The e-mail transmitted the exact four recommendations as contained in the manager’s April 19 report.  

In neither of these documents is there any mention of the elimination of any b oard or commission, or even of consolidation of the CBRC with any other commission. The Brown Act requires sufficient notice to the public of a possible action by the City Council. No such notice was given to members of the public or to members of the C BRC that it was to be eliminated. We, therefore, believe that your sudden action to eliminate the CBRC violated both the intent and spirit of open government as required under the Brown Act. 

The City Council’s action eliminated on-going comment by an of ficial citizens body regarding the city’s most pressing and important issue. BudgetWatch believes that the most important problem before the city at this time is the budget. The council in eliminating the CBRC seems to be saying that they do not want com ment from a citizen commission about this most important issue, even while they keep in place dozens of citizen boards and commissions on every other subject. Doesn’t the budget as a whole deserve the same careful scrutiny from an official citizen body a s the other subjects for which they maintain boards and commissions? Doesn’t the very importance of the subject require a citizen’s commission regarding this subject? 

The thrust of comments made during the discussion about eliminating the CBRC was that members of CBRC simply could not have the depth of knowledge about the budget that comes from the long hours that councilmembers have been putting into the subject. If they truly believe this (and we hope that they don’t), are the public hearings on the budget simply window dressing? Why does the council spend time and money holding community meetings on the budget even when ordinary citizens don’t attend? Less than a dozen citizens have attended the Town Hall Meetings held in West and South Berkeley. Is this a process just for show? Since there is no assurance that any citizen who addresses the council by mail or in public comment has substantial and accurate information on the budget, does that mean the council feels they don’t have to listen? 

The opportunity to address the council is fairly limited—three minutes during public comment periods, and the public hearing held on the budget is late in the process when many decisions have already been made. The best opportunities for citizens to have input into the budget early on in the process when it matters the most is through the meetings of the CBRC meetings. These meetings are more open and “comment friendly” than council meetings. The CBRC has taken these comments and officially forwarded the m to the council carrying with them the highest hopes of citizens that the council will listen to them. The City Council has closed this important avenue. 

The council action was discourteous to every citizen who gives service to the community as a membe r of a board or commission. BudgetWatch well understands the important of and agrees with looking at each and every aspect of city operations for possible savings. We also highly value the need to obtain continuous citizen input through our board and co mmission system regarding a variety of subjects. Berkeley has been fortunate in having many citizens willing to give their time and professional expertise to work on community issues as members of boards and commissions. The way to bring these two conc epts together is to work carefully and deliberately, establishing priorities, formulating clear policies and expressing rationales for proposed actions to retain, consolidate, reduce or eliminate various aspects of the official citizen participation syste m. No member of any board or commission wants to be taken lightly or have their hard work dismissed out of hand, for most the greatest reward for their participation is to know that their work is taken seriously and has an impact on city policies and pr ograms. Abrupt elimination of any board or commission is not only discourteous to the members of the board or commission that was being eliminated, it leads all members of boards and commissions to wonder who is next so why should they pour their work into something so tenuous. 

The council action is discouraging to members of the public who want to believe that a citizen can have some impact on what is contained in the budget. There is no denying that the adoption of the budget is a difficult process. It is also a clouded process in which information seems to be fully provided only when the right question is asked. Yet, we citizens keep on trying to deal with this difficult and complex subject because we understand the importance of the budget on our daily lives. We don’t want drastic service cuts but the tax/fee burden has become too great and a large number of us are hurting because of employer cutbacks, rising health care costs, retirement shortfalls, and increased fees for everything from college to transportation. Many on the City Council seem to attribute the defeat at the polls of your ballot measures to some external factors such as the number of measures on the ballot or the campaigns around those measures. Few counclmembers seem to have fi gured out that the message from the voters had to do with two factors: 1) the lack of balance between services and what ordinary people can reasonably afford; and 2) the feeling of powerlessness in dealing with their government. There is a growing fee ling that decisions have been made before council meetings begin. Yet, we all keep trying to get the message to the council but increasingly feel that the council does not hear. Whether it is a paternalistic “don’t- bother-us-we-know-better” or an autho ritarian “don’t-bother-us-we-don’t-need-you” approach, it stops the building of community understanding and consensus that is essential, particularly in crafting a budget in these difficult times. 


BudgetWatch: Barbara Allen, Kent Brown, Shirley Dean, La ura Menard, Dean Metzger, Bob Migdal, Terrylynne Turner, Trudy Washburn.