Pecking Order at Elk Grove City Hall - A Hierarchy of Consultants

By Michael Monasky | March 24, 2016

 If I think about it long enough, I conclude that our society is a hierarchy of consultants. Spouses consult with each other to figure out budgets and child-rearing strategies. Business firms gather managers and supervisors to determine work flow. Governments are no different.

In government, it's not always apparent who's in charge. Surely, the mayor calls the meeting to order, making certain the agenda is followed. The councilmen hear testimony from the public and then vote on ordinances, plans, and budgets proposed by the staff. What's really behind the decision making process isn't always apparent, however.

The city of Elk Grove hires contract personnel such as the planning staff from Michael Baker International, aka Pacific Municipal Consultants. The city has no planning department, and no planning director. If anyone questions the city's planning strategy, they must go through the city manager's office. There is no direct responsibility of the planning agents, PMC/Michael Baker, to the general public. Good luck with that neutral handling of the General Plan Update.

The modern, scientific method requires the use of peer review as a check and balance to the  publication of studies and opinions in various academic disciplines. This regimen is tossed out in the realm of local politics. When (not if) the city of Elk Grove contracts with a consultant to measure voter interest in a survey of higher tax rates, the contractor may (and does) declare his work product proprietary (read: private property paid for with public money). This means the consultant's work is unchallenged for its declared margin of error, its detailed methodology, and the very data points upon which it depends for its conclusions.

That happened recently with Godbe Consulting, a subsidiary partner of Lew Edwards, for which it was paid $47,000; Lew Edwards has been awarded an additional $70,000 to continue its work towards convincing us, via slick mail brochures and media advertising, that a sales tax hike is a good idea. Another $121,000 is available to the partners if they further convince the council to continue funding this schema.

It happened again at Wednesday night's city council meeting. Economic and Planning Specialists (EPS) made numbers for Darrell Doan, the city's economic development director, that painted a rosy picture of the city's employment status; that the city's jobs to housing ratio is improving; that good paying jobs are multiplying in this suburb; that sprawl isn't as bad as it seems; that the numbers in his report were better than the spotty, random data from the US Census Bureau; all for $12,000.

EPS statistician/economist Ellen Martin regrettably reported to me after the council meeting that her work product at EPS was unavailable for peer review by the public. That's because the information that EPS  unearthed came from Dun & Bradstreet, the 175 year old white-shoe, one-of-a-kind credit/marketing firm that created the NETS Database used in the study. She could tell me, but then she'd have to kill me. As with the tax survey, the jobs report had no challenge to the declared margin of error, no detailed methodology, and no data points.

There are US Census employees who refute Doan's allegation that its data are spotty and random. Andrew Hait, an econometric statistician for the bureau, recently told a workshop audience at the Sacramento Area Council Of Governments (SACOG) that data, from business-economic surveys with a less than 70-percent response rate, are routinely rejected. He said the US Census business-economic data are remarkably reliable, as the bureau guarantees anonymity to firms. Data collected at the Zip Code level are sometimes withheld and aggregated at the county level to ensure such anonymity. And, the information from the US Census Bureau

If I think about it long enough...well, I just get a damn headache.

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