During budget season in many cities, residents expect their city councils to hold a series of public workshops or study sessions that focus on the details of the proposed budgets in the weeks leading up to council adoption.
That is not the case in Garden Grove, where city officials have not held a budget session this spring and are giving residents just five days to review the budget before the council votes on it June 25.
City Clerk Kathleen Bailor said that is the standard procedure in Garden Grove, adding that council members are in touch with staff throughout the budget process.
While this practice does not in itself put the city in violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, which governs openness of public meetings, good-government advocates say it is not how the budget process should be handled.
Terry Francke, general counsel for the First Amendment advocacy group Californians Aware, said short notice not only curtails the public's effect on the budget process but opens the door for Brown Act violations.
“It seems that there are only a certain number of possibilities. One is that staff has somehow made the budget documents so crystal clear and has removed any doubts or ambiguities that no one on either the council or the public would have any questions,” said Francke, a regular consultant for Voice of OC.
“The other possibility is that members of the council do have questions but that they have asked them and gotten their answers in a non-public process. … If there was a succession of identical briefings to a majority of the members, particularly one that allowed members to learn each other's questions, that’s a violation."
Tracy Westen, CEO of the Center for Governmental Studies, said off-the-record conversations are difficult to police, which is the reason cities hold workshops and public hearings to flesh out issues in full compliance with the law.
“If a city views public comment as a pain in the neck and something they wish to avoid, they'll make the public comment period short and pro forma,” said Westen.
Mayor Bruce Broadwater, who's served in his position for all but one term since 1992, said constituents have not complained about the budget process, nor do they engage him with budget issues beyond general frustration about cuts.
“There hasn't been any uproar about [the process] in the past,” said Broadwater. “If there’s an issue, you bet we’re talking about it. I don’t think we should change anything just for the sake of changing. We're doing fine as it is.”
Given their complexity, it’s especially difficult for members of the public to scrutinize the full picture of a budget, said Westen.
Analyzing budgets “takes a lot of time and calculations, and it’s hard for the public to participate. People might say, don’t cut this, don’t cut that, but [with revenue], the public has to take a lot of numbers as a given,” said Westen.
Larger cities are typically under more pressure to do aggressive outreach on their budgets. For example, Santa Ana, which has roughly twice the population of Garden Grove, held nine meetings and two community forums prior to passing the budget.
Garden Grove City Council Member Chris Phan, who was sworn in this January, declined to comment, citing his lack of experience with city budgeting. Other council members did not respond to calls for comment.
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