Transparency Initiatives Suffer as Garden Grove Council Passes Budget

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With sticker shock from the projected $6 million shortfall, Garden Grove City Council members passed a 2015-16 general fund budget Tuesday that scaled back some initiatives aimed at improving transparency and access for residents.

While leaving most of the proposed budget intact, council members spent most of their time negotiating over $300,000 in optional requests before passing the $102 million budget.

City officials are estimating a deficit of $1.9 million just to cover basic city services and more than $4 million in new budget requests for the next fiscal year. That doesn’t include any new labor costs that might result from ongoing contract negotiations with employee unions.

The city will fill those budget gaps with one-time funds, such as the proceeds from selling properties acquired by the former redevelopment agency.

While using reserves to pay off deficits has worked in the recent past, city officials acknowledge that it’s a short-term strategy that won’t stop costs from continuing to rise.

Council members took to heart sentiments from the few residents who showed up for Tuesday’s meeting: don’t spend what you don’t have.

The largest item on the list of new expenditures, a $253,000 tree planting program requested by the Public Works department, was removed altogether out of concern that the drought could jeopardize the success of newly planted trees.

A $25,000 pilot program to provide professional translation services at city council meetings, which council members approved earlier this year, was cut down to $10,000 by a 3-1 vote, with councilman Christopher Phan voting no. Councilman Steve Jones was absent.

A $45,000 request for new transparency software was trimmed to $20,000, to pay for one open government program while forgoing another.

Councilman Phat Bui said the translation and open government initiatives are important but shouldn’t be priorities for funding when other city departments like code enforcement have been scaled back.

“We heard the [police chief] say that crime is growing substantially, so we need more police officers. Our human resources department is way understaffed,” Bui said. “We should focus on filling those positions, not creating something that would just be nice to have.”

Nguyen disagreed.

“There have been problems due to a lack of interpreting services already. I don’t think that is something that is negotiable as a service,” he said.

Most controversial was a request by Nguyen for a part-time mayor’s aide, a non-political position that would be tasked with doing youth outreach and implementing a program to place youth in volunteer and intern positions in local businesses.

Bui lambasted Nguyen for his request, saying the responsibilities should be absorbed with existing staff or by an unpaid volunteer.

“Through our sixty years as a city we have never had a mayor aide. We already have a full-time secretary dedicated solely for the mayor and council,” Bui said. “We are here because we want to volunteer our time – not as a celebrity that needs an entourage.”

Nguyen said the new hire wouldn’t be his own personal political cheerleader, but withdrew the request, saying it wasn’t necessary.

A few items survived the hearing, including a request for $50,000 for a 60th anniversary celebration for the city. Nguyen voted against holding the celebration.

The city’s 50th anniversary celebration cost “several hundred thousand dollars” to put on, said Community Services Director Kim Huy.

Councilmembers also reluctantly agreed to appropriate money for a $25,000 annual donation to the Vietnam War Museum of America Foundation, although actually making the donation will be contingent on whether the organization can convince the council the project is still viable.

Nguyen, the only no vote, opposed giving the foundation any more money at all, saying the five-year organization has had ample time to prove itself.

The foundation has raised just $90,000 on their own, while the city has made more than $100,000 in cash donations to the organization, not including free staff support, according to Huy.

“I see no reason to support it from our general fund. We’re talking about reducing our bilingual services, where there’s a real need, but this idea is in the clouds,” Nguyen said.

Councilman Kris Beard insisted his colleagues wait until he and Phan, who are on a subcommittee to studying the organization’s progress, are done working with the foundation before deciding to pull their support for the museum altogether.

The foundation and subcommittee meets again in July.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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  • Ponytail__

    Learn frickin’ English and save the city $10,000. This is totally ridiculous. I guarantee if I went to a council meeting in Korea or Vietnam they aren’t going to translate nor would I expect them too.