Monday, September 20, 2010 | Today the Huntington Beach City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing to approve the city's proposed 2010-11 budget, which has been posted in its entirety online, along with the City Council meeting agenda.
However, the process of assembling the budget, which included numerous study session meetings with all council members in attendance, was not as transparent.
Normally, the agenda for a local government's public meetings is posted 72 hours in advance, along with all pertinent staff reports and public documents, per the Brown Act, the state's open government law.
Yet many important budget documents from the study sessions -- including details of staff and service cuts, organizational charts, and presentations -- were hidden in information packets known as late communications, leaving residents with little sense of the gravity of what was going to be discussed.
This is unacceptable to Tim Karpinski, a Huntington Beach resident who keeps a close eye on City Hall.
For people who want to speak "during public comments at the study session, there's no way for them to do their homework," Karpinski said.
A review of the past budget study sessions online shows the city failed to post related documents in each instance. City Clerk Joan Flynn said only documents submitted after the distribution of the normal agenda -- usually posted on the city website by Thursday or Friday -- end up in the late communications packets.
When pressed on these failures, both Flynn and City Administrator Fred Wilson acknowledged the city could be doing a better job of reaching out to the public.
And both attempted to lay the blame at the other's feet.
Wilson says it's the city clerk's practice to have late communications available in her office without public notification of their availability and without them being posted online. "I think that's the policy of the city clerk to do it that way," Wilson said.
Flynn says she follows the law, which mandates that communications be made available right away at the clerk's office. But Flynn also said clerk staffers just don't have the resources to post the documents online as soon as they are received.
She said Wilson's office could do a better job of having study session documents ready at the same time as the normal meeting agenda. Flynn said the latest a document could be submitted for inclusion in the agenda packet is Tuesday of the week before the meeting.
Wilson "can make a difference in this by saying the items have to be made available at the time of the agenda," Flynn said.
In the last budget study session, a large document bundle -- containing city organization charts, potential staff cuts and interdepartmental memos -- was submitted in a late communications packet.
According to Flynn, the city's lax policy on making study session documents available goes back to the previous city administrator's policy on PowerPoint presentations. Because the presentations back then were deemed mere "talking point" documents, Flynn said, the city administrator made it OK to leave them out of the normal agenda packet.
"It's just the way we've allowed the organization -- in the way we present materials -- to evolve," Flynn said.
Nonethess, in the past Huntington Beach officials have buried important information in late communications packets.
For example, a report from the city attorney regarding the law surrounding a controversial mobile home park subdivision was found in a late communications packet. Only a few were available at the meeting, and the city clerk made a quick, vague announcement about it without any indication of the nature of the communication.
At the time, Voice of OC's open government consultant Terry Francke said that kind of approach revealed a gap in the Brown Act.
"It doesn't do the audience much good if it's given some kind of vague label and they're not reminded they can get a copy," Francke said.
And Flynn acknowledges that residents were up in arms three years ago when city staff buried key information on a right-of-way issue in a late communications packet.
But both Flynn and Wilson contend that they are doing everything that the law requires.
"When is enough enough? How much work do we have to do?" Wilson asked.