For starters, the politician must be perceived as a potential threat to someone or some group’s plans or agenda. It can be an entrenched special interest organization or a potentially vulnerable politician. In Novato, the Novato Chamber of Commerce is the archetypical example of an entrenched special interest organization.
As a whole, the Chamber is made up of many fine members. The problem lies within its leadership. The depth of the Novato Chamber of Commerce’s involvement with City policy development and action-items presented to the City Council is overwhelming.
If the Chamber Board of Directors and CEO decide it is in the Chamber’s members best interest to have a City of Novato policy changed or Chamber-friendly action-item presented to the City Council, the approval process is typically unremarkable. That is unless, gimlet-eyed community observers elevate the pending action-item to public attention in the local digital and/or print media thereby creating an uncontrollable open and transparent forum of discussion.
Before an action-item initiated by a City Staff member or by an outside or local special interest group, such as a Chamber of Commerce, reaches the Council for an up or down vote, it is submitted to City Staff for review and preparation. Public comment or input may or may not be included during this phase.
After vetting by the City Staff and completion of the Report, the action-item is placed on the Council’s meeting agenda. Simultaneously, the Report associated with the agenda item is distributed to Councilmembers and posted on the City’s website Novato.org. Reports are frequently 100 pages or more in length including attachments, making a cursory review a tempting time-saving shortcut. Reports submitted by City Staff to the Council for their vote are “framed” and submitted to the Council with the expectation of approval.
Oddly, Reports associated with the Council’s meeting agenda are posted simultaneously with the agenda on the City web site on the Thursday afternoon or evening before the following Tuesday meeting. This procedure allows only two work days for Councilmembers to receive clarification from senior City Staff (provided Staff is even available) on any questions they may have before their Tuesday meeting. Occasionally, additional agenda items are added as late as Friday. For complicated important items, this is clearly insufficient time for quality consideration by Councilmembers.
The interested public is markedly limited in its ability to meaningfully participate in agenda items at Council meetings. However, special interest’s pressure groups typically arrive at the Council meeting with pre-arranged formal PowerPoint presentations, staged persuasive commentary by sympathetic “experts”, and added time to advocate their special interest.
Presentations by opponents or those who have questions are extraordinarily rare and unnecessarily difficult to arrange in the limited time provided. The opponents’ only option is a 3-minute public comment period for each speaker in opposition. Presently, there is no simple method for an informally organized opposing group to have equal time and access to visual equipment aids as does an advocate group supporting a Report.
Astute factual comment by opposing residents is easily overwhelmed by the pre-known and pre-arranged presence of large numbers of special interest action-item advocates. The advocacy momentum easily becomes dominant and one-sided. The atmosphere can remind one of a pep rally.
This system easily works for the group promoting the action item if certainty exists in the minds of senior City Staff that a majority of the Council will approve the action-item. If there is doubt, the action-item is not placed on the agenda by senior City Staff.
The formal protocol for Councilmember requests for additional information regarding Reports is in the form of questions submitted to the City Manager for response before the next Council meeting. City Staff responses to Councilmembers’ inquiries, if even given, are circulated simultaneously to all Councilmembers.
Not all inquiries by Councilmembers receive complete responses, or sometimes even any response at all, before the agenda item comes before the Council for action. Why is that? Is this acceptable due process for making a responsible decision?
The reasonable default assumption is that all Councilmembers’ inquiries are treated equally. Despite denials by senior Staff, this in practice has not been the case. Excuses are presented to justify a poor response to a Councilmember who is perceived as being adversarial towards a Report on the agenda. Not enough available Staff time is “the old reliable” amongst these rationalizations. The ability of Councilmembers to do their job of representing Novato residents by making sure special interests don’t overshadow the needs and wants of all Novato residents, is diminished by non-elected stonewalling Senior Staff.
Delayed or incomplete response by City Staff to Councilmembers’ inquiries regarding a Report may critically affect the quality of discussion during the Council meeting. If Councilmember clarification and/or fact-based questions remain unanswered, the quality of Council discussion suffers as does the quality of governance. Where is the accountability to Novato residents?
The brushed-off Councilmember is left with few good options. Raising the issue during a Council session opens the Councilmember to thinly veiled public accusation by the City Manager or senior Staff of placing too many demands on limited Staff time. Or, the inquiry is labeled as too broad, with Staff making the claim that other Councilmember’s submitted questions would go unanswered.
Or the senior Staff’s response may be framed with the insinuation the Councilmember is “difficult to work with”. The bottom line is that unelected Senior City Staff have too much control over who receives what information and this problem remains hidden from the voting public.
The solution may be a public posting on the City web site with the Councilmembers’ questions submitted regarding each Report, the time they were submitted, and the time that City Staff responded to those inquiries. This might help by providing more transparency and accountability.
The current agenda-itemizing protocol unnecessarily limits time available for Report review by Councilmembers and the public. This protocol needs to be updated for the benefit of Novato residents. Reports should be posted at least one week before discussion.
The current protocol for requesting clarification from City Staff compresses the Councilmembers’ Report assessment process to a point where assumptions are too easily used in lieu of factual written clarifications. But, a full- time Councilmember can raise important in-depth questions with confidence during an agenda item’s discussion. A Councilmember with a full-time day job is more limited and left with significantly less time available for review and preparation for quality decision making. Is Novato’s quality of governance less than it could and should be?
The clever Councilmember caught in a time crunch predicament might be tempted to intentionally limit debate and pass the motion as quickly as possible citing the “Council’s confidence” in the quality of the Staff’s Report, thereby abdicating their responsibility as a serious Councilmember.
Another common diversionary tactic used by the unprepared Councilmember is to redirect the discussion to inconsequential legal aspects of the issue by requesting legal opinions from the City’s attorney. One follow-up legal clarification question later and the allotted time for discussion by the individual Councilmember is up and he/she is safely out of the spotlight.
Covering up a lack of preparation and potential public ineptitude by any Chamber-sympathetic Councilmember is a paramount reason the Novato Chamber of Commerce’s leadership will go to great lengths to eliminate the public presence of Councilmembers Eklund and Drew. Drew and Eklund are looking out for all Novato residents and frequently ask the tough questions during open debate, possibly exposing the lack of effective preparation by “busy with their day job” Chamber-supportive Councilmembers.
Avoiding the above scenario is one reason why the Chamber is not satisfied with a predictable solid voting majority. Chamber-endorsed members must look competent while on camera and appear to be in command of the situation. Awkward, hesitant, and ill-informed responses during public discussion triggers the perception of doubt or uncertainty and fans the interest of unknown new candidates who aren’t tied to the Chamber.
It is clever for the Chamber’s operatives to “properly frame” the action-item during the Staff’s preparation phase of its Report for the Council. It keeps the Chamber’s political influence capability below the surface and subsequently off the public’s radar. With offices just across the street, informal consultation easily appears incidental.
Before the Report is submitted along with its agenda item, an affirmative Council vote is already locked in place. Subsequently, the Council approval process resembles more of a coronation than a democratic process serving the needs and interests of Novato residents.
Today, it is full steam ahead by the Novato Chamber of Commerce leadership and Supervisor Judy Arnold to limit and/or eliminate Pat Eklund and Pam Drew’s questions and requests for “clarifications” during Council meeting discussions that can inadvertently expose and embarrass the unprepared Councilmembers who serve as advocates of Chamber-backed agenda items. The Chamber must protect its position because it profits from civic events such as the Novato Arts, Wine and Music Festival. And, it expects the City to pay for projects that singularly benefit only downtown merchants.
The Chamber’s political operatives, along with Supervisor Judy Arnold’s pay-to-play henchmen, threw the “kitchen sink” at Eklund in this recent election. It boomeranged back at them. The attempt was sorely lacking in ethics, transparency and truthfulness. Now, the Chamber’s leadership will have to explain that kitchen sink. The explanation will not reflect well on the Chamber.
What is good for the Novato Chamber of Commerce is not necessarily good for the City of Novato – something all residents should be aware of, particularly since the Chamber maintains that shibboleth is actually true. It is not.