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Council Takes Another Look at Public Comment

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday October 09, 2007

The question of public comment at council meetings is back before the council today (Tuesday), with Mayor Tom Bates adding greater opportunity for public comment than in earlier iterations of his plan, but not enough to satisfy SuperBOLD (Berkeleyans Organized for Library Defense), the organization that had threatened to sue the city for skirting the state’s open meeting laws with inadequate opportunities for the public to speak at public meetings. 

Competing proposals by councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Dona Spring are also on the agenda. 

Also on tonight’s agenda is an audit showing the need for better oversight of controlled drugs used by paramedics, the firefighters’ new contract with the city and more. 

The meeting begins at 5 p.m. in closed session with the council discussing litigation filed against the city by GTE Mobilnet and Verizon and a conference with labor negotiators on labor negotiations with the police association. The public can comment before the meeting is adjourned to executive session.  

At 6 p.m. the city will hold a workshop on city efforts in economic development over the last three months. The regular meeting begins at 7 p.m. 


Public comment 

The mayor’s item on public participation before the council is the third version of Bates’ efforts to expand public comment in accordance with the Brown Act. 

Still at issue, according to Gene Bernardi of the SuperBOLD steering committee, is the public’s ability to address the council on items that do not appear on the agenda. 

According to Bates’ revised recommendation, those people wishing to speak early in the meeting on items not on the agenda must submit a card to the city clerk before the meeting begins. The clerk will choose five members of the public at random to speak at that time. Those not chosen must wait until the end of the meeting to speak. 

In Worthington’s competing recommendation, public comment on non-agenda items would be heard directly after councilmembers approve the consent calendar, where the council approves non-controversial items in a single vote. 

“We prefer Kriss Worthington’s recommendation,” Bernardi told the Planet on Monday. “Non-agenda items should be on the agenda early in the evening.” 

According to Spring’s recommendation, five members of the public chosen by lottery would be able to speak on non-agenda items before the public addresses items on the consent calendar, which is early in the evening.  

In earlier versions of his plan, Bates had all public comment on non-agenda items as the very last item of business, around 11 p.m. His new recommendation appears to be a compromise. 


New chambers 

Bates also added a search for a new council meeting place to the public comment proposal, something Worthington had brought up at the Sept. 11 meeting. “City Council meetings are held in one of the few public buildings in Berkeley that has not been seismically retrofitted,” the mayor wrote, noting that costs to retrofit the Maudelle Shirek Building would exceed $30 million.  

The Council Chamber is also small, allowing only 125 members of the public and is difficult for people using wheelchairs to navigate. A new venue needs to accommodate radio and television transmission, the mayor’s item says. 


Audit: Fire Department controlled substances  

The city must increase its oversight of the controlled substances carried by paramedics, including morphine, valium and diazepam, says City Auditor Ann Marie Hogan in a report that will be before the City Council tonight. 

While Hogan wrote that the audit didn’t find any misuse or misappropriation of substances, “there appeared to be opportunities for misuse or misappropriations,” she wrote in her report, citing incomplete inventory records and a lack of procedures to ensure controlled substance records are accurate, complete and readily retrievable. 

For example, Hogan writes that the ending balance on the June 2006 log was 66 vials of valium and the beginning balance on the July 2006 inventory log was 51 vials. “The beginning balance of the day should match the ending balance of the previous day,” Hogan wrote. 

The auditor further reported poor documentation on disposal of expired or damaged controlled substances. “Purchase records were not consistently maintained or filed,” she wrote, further noting a lack of supervisory review and monitoring of controlled substances. 

Hogan noted that the city did not require drug testing for paramedics or firefighters. In his response, City Manager Phil Kamlarz said the city “intends to implement pre-employment drug testing for all fire new hires effective with the next recruit class.” Kamlarz’ response further indicates that the city will continue to meet and confer with the association with respect to “a program of reasonable suspicion, post accident and return-to-duty drug and alcohol testing.”  

While it appears that drug testing was raised during negotiations, it was not included in the finalized contract recommendation. 

“Firefighters said, ‘what does this have to do with our contract?’” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, reached by phone on Monday.  

The city manager’s comments in the audit report indicate that negotiators will go back to the firefighters to try to implement drug testing when there is “reasonable suspicion” of the use of drugs and alcohol and after a vehicle accident. 

In June, the City Council voted to rescind the city prohibition against drug and alcohol testing of employees, giving negotiators the option of negotiating for testing with employees. 

The question of the need to test arose after the conviction in 2006 of former police Sgt. Cary Kent of felony theft of drugs from the police drug vault he was charged with guarding. 

The city manager wrote in the audit report that the other concerns were in the course of being addressed. 


Firefighters contract 

After more than 30 negotiating sessions since February 2006, the Berkeley Firefighters Association and the city have tentatively agreed to a multi-year contract retroactive to July 2006 and continuing through June 2010. The City Council will be asked to ratify the contract tonight. 

The new contract for the 120 city employees, including firefighters, paramedics, fire prevention and hazardous materials response services, will boost the department salaries 13 percent over the four-year life of the retroactive contract. The total staffing and benefit costs to the city for employees represented by the association over the four-year term of the contract is $52.6 million, representing an increase of $5.96 million over the four years of the contract. 

Also before the council this evening is: 

• An audit of the senior and disabled home rehabilitation loan program; 

• Hiring a library information systems administrator at a range of about $7,000 to $9,000 per month plus benefits and a watershed specialist at about $5,000 to $6,500 per month plus benefits; 

• An increase in the percentage of bio-diesel fuels used in city vehicles; 

• Writing a letter of support to the governor of Louisiana for the Jena 6, the black students accused of beating a white student after altercations arising from nooses hung on a “whites-only” tree, which the black students sat under. 

• The sale for $200,000 of an easement to SNK Captec Arpeggio for fire separation purposes above the Center Street garage.