All it took was one magazine article for the Santa Monica City Council to reconsider how its individual members interact with the City’s other various boards and commissions.
Council members approved ending its liaison program at its annual retreat on Feb. 13, meaning the City’s elected officials will no longer serve as a point-of-contact between the council and the smorgasbord of Boards and Commissions active in Santa Monica.
Staff was also directed “to return with guidelines and norms for communication between Council members and Boards and Commissions.”
The Council’s decision, which aimed to eliminate potential lawsuits against its members, was based upon an ethics column authored by Sacramento-based attorney Michael Dean in “Western City,” the monthly magazine of The League of California Cities. (Click HERE to read that article)
“As innocent as a council member’s motives may be, when he or she personally attends a planning commission meeting or another subordinate committee meeting, he or she may be crossing an ethical boundary,” Dean stated in his column.
Dean’s column, which was published in the December 2010 issue of “Western City,” prompted City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie to submit a staff report for council discussion about whether the council’s current practice of serving as liaisons on boards and commissions violated any laws or ethical norms.
“We concur with the writer’s conclusions that there are, from legal and ethical perspectives, certain problems with our current system, and we agree about the concerns that he raised,” Jones stated at the retreat, adding, however, the City has never received a complaint of any form against a council member for his or her actions while serving as a liaison to a board or commission. “An issue of process was raised. We felt we couldn’t dismiss the concerns that were raised.”
Accordingly, the council weighed between altering its current practice of specific members serving as a board’s or commission’s first-point-of-contact or whether the directive should be eliminated altogether. After an extensive discussion at last week’s retreat, the Council decided, in a 5-2 vote, to eliminate its liaison program.
At heart of the issue is whether a council member’s attendance at a board or commission meeting may interfere “with the role of the commission as an independent advisory body,” run the risk of violating due process or revealing a bias, or allow for a situation where an elected official would not act “in accordance with the views of the city council as a whole.”
Under Dean’s rationale, a key conflict of interest or bias could potentially arise in certain critical boards and commissions where legal determinations are made that affect property modifications. Boards and commissions possessing such quasi-judicial functions include the Planning Commission, Landmarks Commission, Personnel Board, and Architectural Review Board.
“Because the right to due process is attached to many of these types of commission decisions, the participants in such proceedings have the right to an unbiased decision-maker at the city council level,” Dean stated in his column. “A council member who comments at the commission meeting and indicates a firm position on a particular matter may be subjected to a challenge for bias when the same issue reaches the city council.”
Specifically, Dean indicated there could be serious legal or ethical issues attached to a council member if he or she sat on the dais or otherwise actively participated in the discussion of any given board or commission; generally, boards and commissions are independent advisory committees.
“I truly believe our boards and commissions are hugely important,” said Council member Kevin McKeown, who believed that the presence on the dais of council liaisons meant commissioners knew their work was heard and appreciated. “These are volunteers giving their time to help us understand better the issues that come before the Council. Understanding those issues, to my mind, is part of my job as a city council member.”
Adding a practical perspective was Council member Bobby Shriver, who observed current and future council members may not have the time to attend board or commission meetings.
“While the commissions are human institutions, so is the council, and the council has a lot of meetings. Some people on the council are able to go to a lot of other meetings, others, because of their work or travel schedule, are not,” Shriver said. “To create a uniform expectation for all members of the council I think is a mistake and unnecessary.”
Beyond scheduling issues, the volume of boards and commissions operating within Santa Monica itself is so high even the most proactive of council members may find it difficult to attend meetings on a regular basis, it was discussed.
With the council’s decision last week, whether a council member has time or not to attend board or commission meetings will not be an issue.
The Council’s vote was 5-2 in favor of eliminating its liaison program; McKeown and Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis were the two dissenting votes.
McKeown went on the record characterizing his “No” vote as an indication the system in place prior to the council decision was not broken.
“My ‘No’ vote reflects a belief that the existing practice of liaisons to boards and commissions has historically provided a significant community benefit by furthering communication and understanding of local government,” he stated.”
Council members are not required by law to serve as a liaison on any given board or commission, nor has any precedent been set by “informal council action” or “uniform custom.” According to Jones’ staff report, “the only reference to council liaisons in local law appears in Charter Section 1007, and it is very general.”
That section cites: “[t]he City Council may select one of its members to provide active liaison with the [Planning] Commission, but the council member chosen shall neither have a vote in the commission nor be eligible to be its chairperson.”