Jul 14 2018

Controversial Piedmont Charter Changes Challenge Council and Citizens

Council would hire, but could not fire.

Facing a strong Administrative staff proposal to diminish the Piedmont City Council’s authority and control, the Council appeared confused, lacking clarity or direction.  Council members questioned issues as basic as whether the Council or the City Administrator should hire and fire the City’s top managers – Police Chief, Fire Chief, Finance Director, etc.

The City Council had paid little attention to the City Charter until there was a desire to accumulate ever greater amounts of revenue in reserve, without clear and specific purposes.

Overriding the unlimited reserve issue became the Administrative staff desire to change how Piedmont is governed. 

The review and changes to the City Charter had been pushed by former and resigned mayor, Jeff Weiler, who wanted the City to not only have a permanent, potentially escalating parcel tax, but who wanted the City to garner and retain in the General Fund Reserves unlimited amounts of revenue.

The City Council asked the Administrative staff to look at the City Charter and propose changes.   The Council was eager to allow the staff to construct their proposals independent of Council originated ideas. Individual Council members were to privately, outside of Council meetings,  submit to the City Administrator Charter changes they wanted.

The Administrative staff came up with a monumental proposed change to Piedmont’s long-held system of governance. The Charter changes proposed will significantly reduce Piedmont’s City Council’s long-held authority and Council responsibility for City services.

City Administrator, Paul Benoit, proposed that the City Council should no longer appoint top Department Heads, Police Chief, Fire Chief, Finance Director, Public Works Director, etc., he, the City Administrator, should have complete hiring and firing authority.

The Council did not totally accept Benoit’s proposal and chose to continue their long-held practice of hiring key positions.  The Council however, relented on Benoit’s proposal to allow him, the City Administrator, to be the sole individuaauthorized to fire key staff members hired by the Council.

The Council, in deference to Benoit, who is well liked by the Council, was also willing to forfeit their right as a Council to direct the Police Chief, Fire Chief, etc.  The Charter revisions as proposed will require all Council direction to go through the City Administrator, even if the Administrator position is vacated or terminated.  If there is a conflict with the City Administrator and a Council hire, the only choice the Council will have is to fire the City Administrator.

Mayor Bob McBain wanted to totally relinquish to the City Administrator the Council’s hiring and firing authority, but this was not supported by other Council members.

The City Administrator proposed governance is a form of governance traditionally found in cities with directly elected mayors who have more executive authority than Piedmont’s largely ceremonial Council-selected mayor, rotating among  their members with limited powers as set out in the City Charter. 

Council questions regarding Charter language stating the Council has authority “to direct” their appointees led to further Council confusion.  Despite specific existing language in the City Charter stating Council members as individuals are not allowed to direct staff members, Benoit argued he did not want the Council as a whole to be able to direct staff members even during Council meetings or emergency situations.

Individual Council members have been known to direct staff without the knowledge of the Council as a whole perhaps encouraged by a City Administrator.  It can be easier and faster for an administrator to gain direction from one person, a Council member, the mayor, than from a majority of the Council as required by the City Charter. 

The City Council and the City Administration, including the City Attorney, in recent years have not been attentive to the intent or language in the City Charter.  Since Piedmont’s long-term attorney retired, a great amount of knowledge on the City Charter has apparently been lost or ignored.

In considering proposals for changing Piedmont’s City Charter, the City Council has held a number of poorly attended, fragmented public meetings.  No independent committee, as in previous years, was formed to carefully consider the complex and important City Charter despite a number of citizen requests. Because of various voids in the questionable proposals, it is obvious  the entire Charter was not carefully considered nor discussed leaving many questioning the process and the proposals.

Significant current issues were never considered during the Council Charter review process. 

Some examples are:

  • requirement for voters to make zoning changes
  • borrowing money for more than one year
  • Council officer vacancies
  • bid advertisements and notifications

The Council agenda for Monday night appears to acknowledge that the Council, City Administrator, and City Attorney have not upheld Piedmont’s City Charter. 

The Council agenda items for the Monday, July 16, 2018 meeting rebuffs the City Charter when it states “Conform to Modern Practice.”  No one would want the City Charter to perpetuate unlawful practices; however, “Modern Practices” infers and confirms non-compliance with Piedmont’s long successful and practical City Charter.  Prime examples of ignoring the Charter are the usurpation of Council authority, borrowing money, and negation of voter approval for zoning changes.

The Council decided to separate the governance issue from the remainder of the Charter revision proposals after sensing the potential opposition to turning over long-held Council authority to the City Administrator.  Piedmont voters will find little transparency in the attempt to change Piedmont governance as noted in the staff report below:

Amendments to the City Charter to Clarify the Reporting Structure for Officers of the City, Clarify the Departments Responsible for Maintenance of Park Lands and Recreational Facilities, and Make Other Amendments to Conform the Charter to Modern Practice 

 Council dropped notion of unlimited General Fund Reserves.

When Kathleen Quenneville, a local authority on civic governance, told the Council that the Charter proposal to eliminate the cap on General Fund Reserves would not be supported by voters, the Council promptly removed the proposal, as it is their desire to not initiate opposition to Council proposals since a prospective voter approved future facilities bond measure is being considered.  Concern was expressed by Council members wanting to keep voters positive about Council actions and proposals, leading to the unlimited General Fund Reserves being dropped, and the separation of City Administration governance from other proposals.

This article does not describe the many other proposals suggested by the Council, however urgency does not appear to be present.  Items continuing to be of concern are:

  • Inconsistencies between the School Board and Council elections – School Board members could seek re-election after sitting out for 4 years, whereas City Council members must sit out for 8 years, unknown in other communities
  • Extension of time to fill Council vacancies from 30 days to 60 days

The Charter change matter will be considered by the Council at 7:30 p.m., Monday, July 16, 2018 in City Hall, 120 Vista Avenue.  The meeting will be broadcast live on Cable Channel 27 and from the City website under videos.

Comments can be made to the City Council as below:

Robert McBain, Mayor rmcbain@piedmont.ca.gov (510) 420-3048 2nd Term Exp. 11/20
Teddy Gray King, Vice Mayor tking@piedmont.ca.gov (510) 420-3048 1st Term Exp. 11/18
Jennifer Cavenaugh jcavenaugh@piedmont.ca.gov (510) 420-3048 1st Term Exp. 11/20
Tim Rood trood@piedmont.ca.gov (510) 239-7663 1st Term Exp. 11/18
Betsy Smegal Andersen bandersen@piedmont.ca.gov (510) 420-3048 Unexpired Term Exp. 11/18

Below are the staff reports: 

07/16/18 – Consideration of the Following Actions Related to the Possible Amendment of the City Charter

a. Approval of a Resolution and Measure Proposing Amendments to the City Charter to Modify Term Limits for the City Council, Modify the Procedures for Filling of Vacancies in Elected Offices, and Make Other Amendments to Conform the Charter to Modern Practice

b. Approval of a Resolution and Measure Proposing Amendments to the City Charter to Clarify the Reporting Structure for Officers of the City, Clarify the Departments Responsible for Maintenance of Park Lands and Recreational Facilities, and Make Other Amendments to Conform the Charter to Modern Practice 

07/16/18 – Consideration of Options Regarding a Direct Argument and a Rebuttal Argument Regarding the Charter Amendment Measure on the November 6, 2018 Ballot

5 Responses to “Controversial Piedmont Charter Changes Challenge Council and Citizens”

  1. A measure proposing such sweeping changes to the City Charter must, when presented to the voters, include comprehensive arguments both in favor and in opposition to the changes. They must be presented by individuals or groups of individuals with demonstrated expertise in the subject matter. Lacking either of the arguments, the measure must not be put on the ballot until such time as both such arguments are presented in an acceptable and easily understood form.

  2. I am disappointed by this article. I have regarded PCA as a solid source on local news, but this article belongs under “Opinion” and not “News.” I’m also disappointed by its negative and suspicious tone. It is time to review the decades-old Charter and bring it into line with current best practices.

    I (someone with great interest in local governance though not necessarily an expert) attended the most recent town hall meeting and was very impressed by the Council’s deliberations and their openness to public comment. I invite my fellow Piedmonters to watch the tape of the meeting and I think they will be similarly impressed. While I haven’t had an opportunity yet to study the proposal that will be considered tonight, I support in concept the changes that were discussed at the town hall, most of which are technical (bringing internal consistency, updating job titles, and the like).

    I don’t think that the City Council should be managing City staff (the hills undergrounding district cost overrun is an instructive data point on whether it is a good idea for our volunteer Council members to direct City staff). The Council oversees the City Administrator and he is responsible for managing the performance of his staff (though he indicated that he would consult the Council if he was considering dismissing a City officer, something that the Council could document in a City ordinance). The changes in the Charter will clarify lines of authority, and that will be a good thing.

    I agree with George Childs that the Council will need to explain to Piedmonters the reason for the proposed changes – and this is something the Council already recognizes.

    …………… PCA EDITORS’ NOTE BELOW ……………

    PCA appreciates your response to our article.  Our article when published was noted as both “News” and “Editorials from the PCA.”

    Without question the City Charter should, as Piedmont’s constitution, be reviewed from time to time.  PCA believes the City Charter as the foundation of Piedmont remains strong and changes should be thoroughly considered both pro and con prior to voter enactment.

    Voters should understand the dramatic changes being proposed to Piedmont governance.  PCA would welcome a full exploration of potential unintended consequences and advantages of some proposed Charter changes particularly in regard to management.

    The concept you suggest of the Council adopting an ordinance after changing the Charter to clarify the Council’s management authority takes the matter out of voters hands into the Council’s reversing existing City Charter language and policy.

    The newly proposed Charter revision regarding employment of Department Heads calls for the Council to hire/appoint Department Heads – Police Chief, Fire Chief, Finance Director, etc., but the Council would be prohibited from firing their appointees. Only the City Administrator could fire the appointees, creating an awkward separation of powers.  Currently per the Charter, the Council has the responsibility to both hire and fire Department Heads.

    Our existing City Charter language makes it clear that only the Council, voting as a unit, can direct staff and individual Council member have no authority to direct staff, which includes the mayor elected from and by the Council members.

    The Council by resolution currently has authority to direct Department Heads, Police Chief, Fire Chief, Finance Director, etc.  The proposed change to the Charter would prohibit the Council from directing key individuals by resolution, even when deemed necessary.

    The Council is not allowed by existing Charter language to “manage” City administration.  Administration is specifically the responsibility of the City Administrator who is charged with not only administration, but with keeping the Council informed on the performance of Council appointed Department Heads. Historically, implementation of the Charter has generally worked well and harmoniously for Piedmont as long as the Council was vigilant in their oversight role.  

    The private Hills Undergrounding District mentioned was managed  by the City Clerk (with no engineering or construction background) under the supervision of the City Administrator, with little attention and no management or assignment by the City Council.  The failure of the City staff to inform the Council as the excessive costs mounted, and the failure of the Council to inquire about the project as it progressed were issues raised.

    Staff withheld undergrounding debacle information from the entire Council until too late to be considered as an issue by voters during the November Council election, and too late to spare the City unexpected expenditures of well over $2 million.  The Council, as a whole, did eventually intervene in the undergrounding fiasco in an attempt to salvage City resources.

    With the proposed Charter change, an event such as the undergrounding debacle would limit the Council’s ability to fire, if called for, only the City Administrator and City Attorney for failed performance.

    Changes to Piedmont’s management should be known to all voters and clearly explained and debated prior to voters acting on the important proposed City Charter changes limiting the authority of the City Council and transferring their authority to one individual, the City Administrator.
    PCA Editors

  3. July 16 City Council had the option of crafting the proponent ballot argument publicly and have all five members sign. Instead Council chose a two Councilmember closed sub-Committee to craft the ballot argument in private and solicit non-Council signatures. As stated by Councilman Rood, the Council has made the decision tactically to win the election. Council still has the option of producing balanced material that will clearly demonstrate any advantage of revising the Charter.

    As to the Undergrounding, Staff at the time withheld information from Council. Staff was told by the City Engineer to stop digging and do geotechnic work as he saw “career ending issues” if immediate action was not taken by the end of September. At this point the $560,000 contingency is exhausted and Oct 12 the City is “$340,000 over budget.” The work continued and Crest Road collapsed two days later. Council approved staff’s request to use $296,000 of public funds to repair Crest Road. A month before the first taxpayer million was given away, staff was already turning to public funds. Council should retain authority over department heads. (Quotes from Litigation Depositions.)

    I do not believe current Department Heads and City Administrator would act in the same manner that was done during the Undergrounding cost over-runs. The City learned some valuable lessons as demonstrated by the recent Hampton playfield redo; however, residents must still remain vigilant.

  4. Our government is supposed to be based on a system of checks and balances. To put the entire responsibility for firing on one individual flies in the face of this concept. We have seen the dangers in letting one administrator guide major decisions.

  5. I agree with George Childs’ comment re the dangers of having one individual have sole responsibility for firing city officials. This definitely is not a good idea. Our city officials are hard working, talented and dedicated individuals, and a setup such as this needlessly puts their careers in jeopardy if they don’t happen to see eye-to-eye with the administrator. It also makes the city more vulnerable to wrongful termination lawsuits. A system of checks and balances is a better alternative for both city staff and residents of Piedmont.

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