Public Engagement Fails – City Keeps Public Guessing
DESERT HOT SPRINGS, CA – The meetings were set up to gather citizen input on the city budget. Answering the call to participate were several residents, some of them experts in municipal finance, bookkeeping and community involvement. All were ready to dig into the numbers.
A look into the numbers never took place and neither did most of the meetings. Over a five month period of what were to be bi-weekly discussion, only three meetings took place.
Several committee members accept this fate from this round of city leaders and have come to the conclusion the city never really wanted the kind of detailed examination of city finances that committee members expected.
The problem came with the first meeting. Committee members provided the city with a list of budget information they said was needed to give city finances a serious look.
That information was never provided by the city. Instead, the city cancelled most of the committee meeting and the two meetings that did take place consisted of city staff taking up most of the meeting time with long explanations about the duties of each city department.
City Finance 101
The city called those presentations “City Finance 101” that committee members viewed as a top-down approach and a suggestion that committee members were in need of entry level instruction.
The committee members included, Marilynn Heidrick, who had previous worked as an advisor to the city as the city worked to get out of bankruptcy in 2004, John Paul Valdez, a finance and investment specialist and John Gerardi, a retired Chief Financial Officer at the City of Coachealla and now teaching finance at College of the Desert, to name a few.
Information the committee members hoped to look into included existing city contract obligations, projected vs. actual tax receipts and city employee salaries. Employee salaries became a contentious issue at the third and final meeting of the committee.
The city was specifically asked to provide salary information of each employee, including future raises the employees were in line for and pension obligations for each position. The information had been requested at both of the first two meetings.
After sitting through the long city staff presentation at the third meeting, Committee Co-Chairs Mayor Yvonne Parks and Councilwoman Jan Pye were asked why the information was not provided.
Pye said it should have been provided and instructed the city staff to make sure the information was provided for the next meeting. The next meeting was cancelled.
Three times the Finance Committee met and three times there was no public discussion of the city budget.
Attempts to Discuss Staff Wages Failed
Although meetings were open to all, for the most part attendance was predominately city staff outnumbering by a large margin the general public, creating an intimidating presence. At one meeting an armed police officer attended, outfitted in full SWAT commando gear.
A special training session on February 9 for “Public Engagement” was provided by Executive Director Pete Peterson of the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University to encourage public engagement and civic leadership.
The session was open to public who joined city staff as well as the city manager, the mayor and city council.
Attendance was weak and unenthusiastic. It appeared that Mayor Yvonne Parks had a difficult time staying awake. Tim Brophy, the community development committee chairman, appeared offended his picture was being taken and blocked the photographer.
Lessons were offered on how local government can be more effective by operating in a transparent fashion and involving the public in decision-making. Peterson provided examples illustrating how the lack of public engagement is problematic. Instead of averting mistakes, those lessons are being followed by city staff and city leadership to discourage public engagement.
Always the Bridesmaid, Never the Bride
The Finance Committee has had three meetings since November 2012 and each time was left waiting at the alter, empty handed, starving for information about the budget. The special meeting scheduled for Tuesday, March 12 has scheduled a review of the city’s mid-year fiscal budget that the Finance Committee and the public has not seen.
The agenda for tomorrow’s special council meeting announced that city manager Rick Daniels has completed a mid-year review of the city’s financial condition based on an audit of the previous fiscal year’s revenue and expenditures.
Also on the agenda are proposals to receive and file the auditor’s report, review and discuss the city’s fiscal policy, review and discuss proposed budget and budget calendar recommendations. None of the above was discussed in the last five months of Finance Committee meetings.
For over 40 years Dean has been published in a variety of small newspapers and magazines. As publisher he founded an alternative city weekly newspaper in 2008 and published over 200 uninterrupted issues over 4 years to over 20,000 readers via 800 locations (and online) before selling the business. Now online with over 3 million readers worldwide.
Dean is a Master Carpenter and the author of the biography of Hilda M Gray, desert homesteader. He served as Planning Commissioner for the city of Desert Hot Springs from January 2014 to January 2015 when he resigned.
Dean M Gray is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors and lives in Palm Desert, California.