The Turlock City Council recently moved to accept the 2014-2015 Legislative Platform for the City as presented, and authorized the City Manager to participate in the League of Cities advocacy efforts on behalf of the City on a 4-1 vote.
As it is in place now, letters presented to the State Assembly on behalf of the City of Turlock are polled at City Council meetings in discussion, but as Stephen Qualls, Public Affairs Manager for the Central Valley Division of the California League of Cities, explains there are many times when there is not enough time for a decision to go through this lengthier process.
Approved with a 4-1 vote at the City Council meeting earlier this month, the motion allows Turlock’s City Manager, Roy Wasden, or in other cases, Mayor John Lazar, to sign a letter on behalf of the City supporting or opposing legislation at the State level. Their decision for support or opposition would be based on the City’s Legislative Platform so that the opinion would not be their own, but that of the Council, public, and City department heads.
The discussion at the City Council meeting was being revisited from one in February 2012 regarding the Legislative Platform. At that point in time, the Council had decided to bring individual legislative pieces back one at a time, but as Assistant to the City Manager for Housing and Economic Development Maryn Pitt pointed out, there are even tighter time frames to account for in 2014. Pitt and Qualls addressed the Council, asking them to revisit that particular decision, review the updated Platform, and provide delegate authority for the City Manager to sign letters on behalf of the Council to take actions in conjunction with the League of Cities.
“A lof of people believe that letters, calls, emails don’t make a difference but I really believe that they do,” said Qualls, emphasizing the importance of Turlock taking a stance on legislation and sending it out as quickly as possible. “It really makes a difference when they hear from you. When our lobbyists go into their offices, there’s over 2,000 bills sometimes during the year.”
Qualls explained that sometimes the legislators have “no idea” what a bill entails, and it is better when they can remember that one of their constituent cities had a say on it, supporting or opposed.
“It makes a big difference to our lobbyists to make sure that those legislators are already aware of that bill, and it also gives them cover sometimes if they have to vote against their own party,” said Qualls. “This gives them a chance to say, ‘Hey look this is what my constituents want.’”
Earlier in the session, Qualls explained, it’s sometimes possible to bring something in front of the Council to make calls on the bills, but as it gets later in the session it sometimes needs be done quickly, even within hours.
Qualls compared communicating with your legislator like voting, “you can’t make a difference if you don’t try and get involved.”
The Central Valley Division of the League recently executively voted to send letters of support or opposition as representing the Division as a whole, and it is an opt out situation. For example, if the City doesn’t agree with putting their name on a letter in support or opposition of certain legislation, they can say they want to have the City of Turlock’s name taken off of that letter.
Lodi, Ceres, Modesto, and Merced already have informal agreements in place within their cities to have the City Manager act on behalf of the Council to form an opinion when it is needed quickly.
Wasden explained that the decisions would be made off of the Legislative Platform, based on the City’s Strategic Plan that was adopted by the City Council after being vetted by the public and the Council.
After Councilmember Amy Bublak and Lazar expressed concern with transparency and violation of the Brown Act, City Attorney Phaedra Norton expressed that this kind of framework would not be in violation.
Wasden would sign his own signature on letters of support or opposition according to policies in the Legislative Platform, based heavily on the plans and ideas of the City’s Strategic Plan, a representative document of Turlock. Because he would executing this policy, the act of signing letters on behalf of the City would be transparent, according to Norton.
Wasden explained that the Legislative Platform has been vetted against the Mayor’s Strategic Plan as well as all of the department heads who have reviewed it and “they did have a number of things that they tweaked and changed” so that there has been quite a bit of work done to get to this point. Wasden also added that he believes the Platform is reflective of the feelings of department heads, of himself as the City Manager, of Pitt as Assistant to the City Manager for Housing and Economic Development, and would reflect the things the Mayor is insistently trying to accomplish in the strategic plan.
Councilmember Forrest White voiced his concern that the Strategic Plan was prepared nearly a year ago, potentially meaning outdated opinions, and requesting that if there is an outstanding opinion of a couple individuals, the City Manager take that into consideration.
“One of the things that has happened recently is that sometimes the League, and no offense Stephen [Qualls], but we come out against things, just straight out, and then we lose,” said White. “And sometimes we might be better to come out either as a ‘watch’ and/or ‘oppose, pending change’ but we’ve been put in a situation a couple times recently where we’ve opposed and we’ve lost big time and … I appreciate not being put in that position. Same with support, you have support and sometimes you lose.”
White admitted that he knows it is difficult for the League to take every City’s objection into consideration on every decision, but that he was concerned that it puts Turlock at odds with legislators.
Qualls then explained that before the League takes a position on any bill, it’s vetted very thoroughly through the legislative directors and through the lobbyists, but it also may even go before the executive committee and the policy committee, made up of representatives from every city in the state of California. He acknowledged that sometimes you may lose to opposition, but that he still believes it is better to have a letter on the table.
Sample letters are often prepared by the League, with City Managers able to edit them as they see fit.
“But I don’t think that those letters are ever combative, we’re just letting them know our position,” said Qualls. “There is the possibility but I’ve been with the League for six years and I’ve never seen it happen.”
White again argued that the disagreements have been on larger issues, such as redevelopment, and that he believes the issue could have been compromised.
Lazar said that he didn’t believe they could’ve compromised on it. Bublak then chimed in.
“So I still have a concern,” said Bublak. “In the six years I’ve served, in the last four I’ve been the minority, and I worry that transparency doesn’t get to be a part of this if we’re doing a poll, and I’m not needed to ask because I know we can ask three other people and get where we need to be, and so the public isn’t getting to hear the views of their leaders as well.”
Bublak expressed that in her opinion, although “the thought process is nice,” eventually they are looking at the process of not being transparent and not saving time either.
“I’m somewhat opposed to it, I like the philosophy of it but I think what we’ve been doing serves us best,” said Bublak.
Bublak would prefer keeping the process of individually approving letters to legislators on Turlock’s position in front of the Council so that nothing could be moved by without Councilmembers voicing their opinions individually for each piece.
“I don’t know of an instance where there was a poll and not all the Council members were polled,” said Lazar.
Wasden again made clear that the decisions would be based on the Legislative Platform which comes from ideas in the Strategic Plan and what was vetted through the City’s department heads.
“I wouldn’t be polling anyone,” said Wasden. “It would be if there is something that comes up that we should support based on what’s in your Legislative Platform or should oppose based on what’s in your Legislative Platform, then we would take that action. Additionally, if Stephen [Qualls] tells me it’s better if [something] has the Mayor’s signature, I’d draft the letter for the Mayor.”
Wasden also expressed how time consuming it is as a staff to prepare and bring in front of Council items that they already know have solid conclusion, given by what is in the platform. The City Manager feels that by bringing items up individually, they don’t have time to keep up with all the legislative items that move through in the time that they move. He also added that if there is something in the Plan that they want to change, and therefore change in the Platform, it could be amended at any time.
“This would certainly make it easier for us to be involved with the flow of government at the State level,” said Wasden.
Councilmember Bill DeHart agreed that they are dealing with issues that are happening in real time in Sacramento and that he sees that the City would utilize the sample letters provided by the League and make tweaks according to the Platform.
Lazar also added that he is in contact with the Wasden on a daily basis, which would make it easy for them to discuss issues as needed. He then explained that former Assemblymember Tom Berryhill was very engaged, calling Lazar personally several times when there were bills on the floor and he appreciated and respected that from him but that he understands it was out of the norm and that most assemblymembers do not take the time to do that.
But Bublak, who remained over the phone, still wanted to clarify the transparency and order of the process by raising another question.
“How do we know our position without asking?” said Bublak.
“It’s articulated in the Legislative Platform, which is consistent with your Strategic Plan,” said Wasden. “If there were something that’s not addressed in the Strategic Plan, we would have to agendize it and bring it in front of you because we wouldn’t have a direction in the Platform that we have adopted.”
Councilmember Steven Nascimento explained that as the City’s Representative for the League of Cities, he understands and the rest of Council to understand how important it is to give Turlock’s voice on certain issues so that there stance is known.
DeHart, Nascimento, White, and Lazar all provided yes votes to pass the motion; Bublak casted the lone no vote.