Dixon Ahead of the Curve?
After last Tuesday’s marathon day with me up at 6am to make my 7 am office hours continuing on until 1:30 am in the morning of Wednesday, I had the opportunity to see the antithesis of open government in the town of Cotati Wednesday night before driving home at around midnight. Thinking about how opposite our city governments are while the communities are similarly rural, and the same problems I have encountered to a lesser extent in the towns of Rio Vista, Crescent City, Rohnert Park, and Petaluma, it led me to make the comment to our city clerk, Janice Beaman, that Dixon’s city government is pretty good in comparison.
As with most city employees who have been under my fire or in my targets during the course of my vocal as well as literary careers, Janice wants praise along with the constant criticism. That is appropriate. For example, Rio Vista’s appointed part time city clerk, Carolyn Parkinson, who makes around $90k per year working only two days a week thinks it is perfectly fine during the three week period for pulling papers for the upcoming election to make those individuals attempting to draw papers to have to make appointments to see her. I guess she also figures that they need to make appointments when they turn in their signatures.
Janice, on the other hand, is coming in while on vacation despite the fact that she has deputized the city’s assistant city clerk, Suellen Johnston, as well as trained her to handle the dispersing of election materials. On top of assuring service to the public, Janice is setting an example of not only doing the job well but accentuating her duty as an election official to encourage the public’s participation rather than making it difficult.
Even our mayor BJ, backroom Jack or Jack Batchelor, deserves praise for not resorting to speaking time limits as did our former mayor Cowbell who was the only mayor in the past 20 years who ever did this. My friend from Cotati, former councilman George Barich, commented to me how amazed he was to see a council who actually listened to its constituency. During Batchelor’s entire tenancy as mayor he has seen no need to repress the public despite wanting meetings to be orderly as well as end early.
Jack has been aggravated a few times by the lengthy speaking style of either myself or Dane Besneatte. Jack is also no slouch about speaking at length, barking back at the public, or otherwise extending the meetings on his own. However, neither Dane nor I see all of this as a problem that needs to be solved. It is all part of the process.
By comparison Cotati is in the stone age or has entered the Dark Ages of city government. Ensnared in some egotistical sense of their own worth, the council there believes they are above the Brown Act and don’t have to take input on every item on the agenda while they are considering each of them. The mayor, Robert Coleman-Senghor, refuses to pull individual items off of the consent calendar instead telling the public that they must address them during public comment on “non-agenda” items. Why not just say that everything the public has a problem with on the agenda needs to be discussed at this point and only for 3 minutes?
Of course, just as with the sub-par councils of Courville, the blame can not be laid only at the mayor’s feet. You have Pat Gilardi who is running for re-election, a former fireman named Mark Landman who was appointed to the council, and Janet Orchard along with Barich’s replacement whose contributions are so memorable that I don’t even remember her name, all going along with the mayor’s program. You also have Mike Gogna, a member of Meyers-Nave, acting as city attorney telling the council they can do what they want. He ran around the issue rather than saying the public has a right to speak to “any” item on the council’s agenda.
Reading the appropriate section of the Government Code entitled the Ralph M. Brown Act did as much good as reading Robert’s Rules of Order to vice mayor Rick Fuller concerning not interrupting anyone who has the floor to speak. Of course those of you in Dixon who keep up with my novel approaches to making sure I have the attention of others know I am not easily stopped. Education is an ongoing proposition.
It is unfortunate when that education extends to those who have the task and duty of administering the law. The district attorney of each individual county has this responsibility as a first resort, followed by the county Superior courts. The Brown act specifically addresses this through any person’s ability, as well as the district attorney’s, to file a writ of mandamus, obtain an injunction, or to ask for declarative relief “for the purpose of stopping or preventing violations or threatened violations” of the act.
Interestingly enough, even Solano County’s District Attorney Dave Paulson has done the right thing on more than one occasion on this topic. I guess you just have to be one of his favorite people in order to get action. This is typical of the “bad old boy” form of government I detest and one of the sources of my continual complaints about his tenure in office. We will have to see how his replacement, Don DuBain, handles these matters.
Rather than getting an immediate action by the Sonoma County DA’s office, I was pushed off by an assistant DA toward contacting the council and getting their written response. This office had already received an initial complaint from someone else, which is one of the reasons I attended the council meeting in the first place. As education failed, a direct complaint was made, and the entire council and their attorney sat silent, I felt this was enough to compel action without delay. Of course all of this was made perfectly clear within my email complaints as well as hard copy complaints by the Cotati citizen.
So now I sit and wait while an “investigator” sorts through not one but three complaints. Either the law says what it says or it doesn’t. We all know what the spirit of the law intends. Why is it so difficult to have it enforced? Does government, despite these types of laws, really want or encourage citizen participation? In Dixon the answer is yes. I intend to export this novelty to other jurisdictions which is the answer to the question of why I get involved outside of our area. It is the right thing to do and others need our help.
If we all left this up to Terry Francke, formerly of the California First Amendment Coalition and now of Calaware, would anything change? If it wasn’t for our good fortune to have had Ourania Riddle volunteer with Francke, who here in Dixon would have even known about this? The Frasers who filed against the school district back in the late 80’s or early 90’s got the job done the old fashioned way, by litigation. Should we have to resort to that now, long after the Brown act was encoded? See any similarities between this and the American’s with Disabilities Act?
The point is if it doesn’t feel right, if you know the principles of American government and believe in individual freedom, and you find it in writing within government codes, why aren’t you up here with me yelling at the top of your lungs, “just STOP it!!!” A little of that occurred at the last Dixon city council meeting. As I said once before, at least our present mayor accepts criticism and has the potential to react to it unlike his predecessors. However it is those few who aren’t afraid to stand up and speak that should draw the most applause. In this case it was Shirley Humphrey and Drew Graska.
What do I expect to happen over in Sonoma and Cotati, a bastion of liberal progressive idiocy? I expect more obfuscation, more stalling, and to have to file for an injunction which will occur before their next meeting. To do less means that they win and the public loses. The same public who placed them in office. To have to wait for a future election to remove ignorant politicians who are elected by even more ignorant voters is an effort of and in futility.
Crescent City’s lone responsible councilwoman, Donna Westfall, was sued by the city when she attempted to halt increased sewer rates unfairly distributed between existing residents and future development. Her case was in court this last week being defended by Tim Bittle of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Petaluma has their initiative on the November ballot for a second time. Rio Vista is not far behind and will be attempting to qualify their initiative for a second time after their council and attorney pulled legal hijinks to stop their first attempt. All have same thing in common. They are not listening to the citizens.
While many of you may think this column is out of character, in that I am giving praise where it is due, I have done this in the past. It has largely been ignored. The more important thing is although I believe Dixon is ahead of most communities in citizen involvement and city staff cooperation, it is not a shining light to be held up as an example to others…at least not yet.
We have a city manager who would usurp even more control from a council whose seeming majority has no problem ceding their authority and with it citizen freedom. We have a city attorney who politicizes his advice based on the perceived majority. Lest we forget our troubled school district, there is a large similarity between their board’s lack of desire to be the “boss” and simply rubber stamp their superintendent’s predilections and directions.
It may be too early to take what some consider drastic action. I have been calling for an “in house” city attorney since former councilman Chris Manson suggested this when he was in office. We would have been money ahead many times over if this had occurred. How this would preclude the attorney’s or lessen his politicization is unclear to me as he would still be dependent on the majority of the council for his job.
As for the city manager and the superintendent, the hand writing is on the wall. Elections change many things. So does the realization among board members and councils that maybe, just maybe, something is broken. While many would say that managers are only able to do what they are allowed to do by their governing bodies, there is a moral and ethical duty to look beyond their own remuneration to see what service they provide to the community. I believe neither of the individuals, or those in their position in the past, have done so.
Continue to ask yourselves is the school district really providing a quality education for our children? Why hasn’t the Pardi market site been developed as planned over 15 years ago? How is it that a neighborhood floods almost every year and has done so for 30 years without mitigation? We finally took some action on this type of problem around Washington and F Street after a home had to be removed as uninhabitable. Why have past councils failed, yes failed, to be responsive to the public.
Sitting at home instead of attending council meetings is part of that problem. Don’t be frightened away through the intimidation of the “bad old boy” group who labels all who object, regardless of the validity of their objections, as radicals and trouble makers. You are the “real” people and you need to be heard.
Cheerleaders for the status quo need not apply …
NOTE: Michael Ceremello is also a Councilman in the City of Dixon.