Guest Commentary - Elk Grove City Council meetings should be interactive. But they are not.

By Mark Graham | Guest Commentary |

Anybody who has tried to get any meaningful response or information out of the Elk Grove City Council in the last several years has had a frustrating experience. The Council is like a closed book.

Their constituents make comments and ask questions about anything the City does, any matter of City policy, but the Council never says anything! (almost) Unless it’s about a matter on the agenda.

We the residents occasionally ask, Why are you doing this, or Why aren’t you doing that? We ask about new policies being developed or old policies which the City is implementing. The Council never says anything, other than “Thank you.” Rarely the Council will say, “We can’t do that because of X,” but they never address items they CAN do something about.

In a City of 170,000 people how many attend regular Council meetings other than those who have to be there for presentations? Maybe 10? Probably fewer. 1/100 of 1 percent of the population would be 17. The Council almost never has 17 people attend who don’t need to be there.

Why such low participation? Elk Grove residents know this is how the Council rolls. They know from experience that no matter what they say during public comments on matters not on the agenda the Council will not respond. It is discouraging or, in legal terms, “chilling.” The Council’s closedness chills or prevents resident participation.

At the June 28 meeting the Council received a presentation about the Civic Summer program, in which 46 students from high schools in Elk Grove are participating. Several students spoke to the Council during the meeting. Council Member Darren Suen said he was thrilled with the students’ engagement. He encouraged students to, “Ask questions and get engaged.”

How about everybody else in Elk Grove? How about the adults? The Council apparently doesn’t want us to “ask questions and get engaged.” If they did they would actually respond.

There is a lot of talent, wisdom and experience on the Council. We deserve to receive the benefits.

The Council should share some of their talent, wisdom and experience with us. Give us a substantive response on some matter of City business that they CAN do something about. Tell us what you are thinking, what you know, or what you’d like to learn about the matter. The residents who want to help the City do a better job want to know and we could help the Council more if we knew this.

At least in 2018 – early 2020 the Council incorrectly believed they could not respond to questions and comments on matters not on the agenda – because of the Brown Act. This turns reality on its head.

The Brown Act, California’s law on meetings of local government, specifically authorizes the Council to respond in 7 ways to questions and comments on matters not on the agenda. It is Government Code section 54954.2(a)(3). I showed the Council this at both June meetings. They can no longer claim they do not know. The Brown Act doesn’t require the Council to respond but it authorizes them to. It gives them the power.

When you see somebody talk to the Council about a matter not on the agenda and the Council fails to respond in any meaningful way it’s NOT because the Council CAN’T respond. It’s because they have chosen not to.

Does the Council think we are not worth their time? Are they not going to stoop down to our level to respond to us?!

The best way to encourage resident participation in Council meetings is to make them interactive. It’s for the Council to exercise their right to respond to questions and comments on matters not on the agenda. It would make for better policy all around and better city government.

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D.J. Blutarsky said...

Mr. Graham, sadly most residents are unaware that we even have a City Hall, let alone where it is located! But ask them where the nearest fast food joint or noodle shack is and you're likely to get a very detailed navigational answer that a boat skipper would be proud of.
But in the event a resident seeks out City Hall to make a comment that is important to them, this is where the stonewall greets them.

The City Council knows what side their bread is buttered on and that's why every development project is approved 5-0, end of discussion. When a 'little person' approaches the podium for their three minutes of democracy, the 5-0 squad can feign interest, but in reality they are doing a mental political cost-benefit analysis of whether that speaker matters to them politically.

Usually the answer is nope, they are a no one and they can use the City Attorney's Brown Act explanation to justify a subconscious stifled yawn and say to themselves, "your time is up, next speaker please". 

Steve L said...

Yes, Mark you are correct. The council should engage those who take the time and effort away from their families to speak in civil proceedings. The fact that they don’t is because they don’t care about what you think. They have their agenda to get through and engaging the public slows the process down. They want to get out of the chambers as quickly and as painlessly as possible. They like the notoriety and attention of being an elected leader, but they largely distain their actual duties to be engaged, enlightened and innovative. If they didn’t know they could engage the citizenry, it proves my point. They’re disengaged.

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