Despite a push from one Laguna Beach City Councilmember, city officials won’t be publishing meeting agendas nearly two weeks before the council meets after the city manager said there’s simply not enough staff.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said it’s impossible to publish agendas 12 days before meetings.
And most staff reports – critical components to policy proposals – aren’t finished until right before the agendas go out, she said.
“99% of the staff reports aren’t even ready until late Wednesday evening or Thursday morning,” Dupuis said.
“With the resources that I have available here, your recommendation is not possible. If you want to give me a lot more resources, a lot more staffing, I can make that happen,” Dupuis told Councilman George Weiss who called for more advanced notice of meeting agendas.
The council instead agreed to provide brief descriptions of matters that will be on the agenda earlier – although it’s unclear how many days in advance those descriptions will be available for the public.
Councilmembers are expected to vote on these changes at a future meeting, where the matter is expected to be placed on the consent calendar – meaning the city council passes all items on that calendar with one vote, unless something is pulled for discussion.
Cassie Walder, a spokesperson for the city, said in a Wednesday phone call that the specifics will be laid out at that future meeting.
“Nothing really solid or concrete has been determined at this time so it’s going to have to return to (the) city council to be documented,” Walder said.
Weiss had called on his fellow council members to give greater advance notice to residents on the issues they will discuss and vote on at their council meeting.
Laguna Beach typically puts out City Council agendas on Thursdays before a Tuesday meeting the following week – an approach taken by many other cities, like Anaheim.
The council asked staff to publish agendas on Wednesday during weeks when city hall is closed on Friday.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Weiss said the current three-day noticing makes it difficult for residents to address issues they want to comment on.
“People deserve to know what the council is considering two weeks from this meeting,” Weiss said. “It’ll allow people to better plan their participation … having only three days’ notice to read and research an item … is not adequate, in my opinion.”
In a memo, Weiss points to similar action taken by the Irvine City Council back in 2018.
Back then Irvine Council members voted unanimously to pass an ordinance that extends noticing for a meeting from five days in advance to 12 days before the meeting is scheduled.
“Providing additional advance posting of City Council agendas provides the public greater access to and participation in the City’s business which is also the public’s business,” reads a memo from Weiss.
But Dupuis said Laguna Beach isn’t the same as Irvine in terms of staffing and funding.
“You compare us to the city of Irvine, you should then compare also the resources they have available to them,” Dupuis said at the meeting.
Mayor Sue Kempf said the city’s current approach is fine.
“I don’t really care what Irvine does, they’re a different city, they’re a huge city, they have a lot of staff,” she said, noting that staff has other responsibilities outside of agendas and staff reports.
Dupuis said the city already gives residents an idea of what issues will be discussed at meetings by providing a tentative agenda online under the recaps of previous meetings.
A couple residents told council members they had no idea the tentative agenda even exists.
“Transparency, and information are the hallmarks of representative democracy. If citizens don’t have a reasonable amount of information, they can’t be very thoughtful,” said Resident Jim Danziger.
He argued that if it is too “onerous” for staff to give residents a better heads up, city officials can at least provide short summaries of what’s going to be on the next agenda.
“We all know information has power and if the citizens don’t have information, then democracy fails in a kind of significant way. It can’t be that harmful to insist that staff provide at least a few paragraphs of detail about important agenda items earlier than the Thursday before you make a very important policy decision,” Danziger said.
Councilman Peter Blake said all the speakers were “hardcore activists” and the city never had a problem with the agenda publishing schedule in the past.
“I don’t want half baked information coming out on issues, especially not when the group of people that spoke tonight are going to take it and use it for their political advantage,” he said. “I don’t want information going out that’s not fully vetted before the staff meetings.”
Councilman Bob Whalen and Kempf agreed with Blake and said the council doesn’t lack public input.
“Compared to most councils around the county, we lead the league in public input, which is fine. That’s just part of being here in Laguna,” Whalen said.
He also supported putting out brief summaries of what would come before the council.
Weiss said an earlier posting of meeting materials doesn’t have to be a full-blown agenda.
In the end, Weiss said any change that provides greater notice of issues the council will be tackling is “better than the minimum standard, which was created under the Brown Act 30-40 years ago.”
The Ralph M. Brown Act is a statewide law that governs open meetings for cities and counties that requires a three day advance notice before any city council meeting.
The Brown Act also mandates what can be discussed in closed session, which narrowly allows closed door talks of lawsuits, legal threats, labor contracts, and price and terms of payment of public land sales.
The Laguna Beach City Council has been called out for Brown Act Violations before.
Last year, the County’s District attorney’s office said Laguna Beach councilmembers violated the sunshine law by improperly notifying the public of a discussion on Hotel Laguna renovations at their June 29 meeting.
Roughly a month before, the city council censured Weiss for disclosing confidential information from the closed June 29 meeting, which Weiss argued was not properly agendized.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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