"Amnesia File" / Opinion

How LB Residents Lost Their Right To Agendize Items For Council Discussion/Action...And Why Restoring That Right Should Be Priority Reform Now is reader and advertiser supported. Support independent news in LB similar to the way people support NPR and PBS stations. We're not non-profit so it's not tax deductible but $49.95 (less than an annual dollar a week) helps keep us online.
(July 7, 2018, 8:15 p.m.) -- Regardless of what the City Council does on July 10 to restrict/curtail/block/censor advice from its "advisory commissions," in 1996 (under a Mayor who scorned instead of embraced public dissent) ALL Long Beach residents lost -- and now very much need to demand restoration of -- the right to agendize items for City Council discussion and action. opens our "Amnesia File" to detail what happened 22 years ago; cites some of its current consequences, and explains why restoring that lost right to the people of Long Beach should be a priority reform now.

Amnesia File -- How Long Beach residents/taxpayers lost their right to agendize City Council items

Two decades ago, if LB residents wanted their policysetting City Councilmembers to do so something, they had the right under LB's Municipal Code to put items on the Council's agenda to prompt discussion and enable action. The public lost that right in a crudely executed maneuver in the pre-internet era before For over twenty years -- and despite Mayor/Council cliches about increasing "civic engagement" -- no Long Beach Mayor or Councilmember has moved to restore the public's right to agendize items on which the public wants Councilmembers to act...whether Councilmembers want to do so or not.

[Scroll down for further.]

By mid-1996, Mayor Beverly O'Neill (elected two years earlier) was tired of hearing residents object to things that she, then-city management and some then-Councilmembers wanted. Petitions and a lawsuit flew over a proposed pay-for-play Sports Complex that would consume part of El Dorado Park. Pre-internet faxes flew over a Port-desired plan to bulldoze the LB Naval Station (which included ample high rise housing, a gymnasium and swimming pool built at taxpayer expense) for what video-journalist Huell Howser later derided as a "container yard" (today Port Pier T with a row of red cranes formerly operated by bankrupt Hanjin.)

Mayor O'Neill showed her scorn for individuals she refused to name during an August 1996 meeting of CA delegates to the Democrats' National Convention. Mayor O'Neill thanked President Clinton's administration for COPS grants, HUD and EDA assistance and stated: "We will no more have the good old days, we will have better new days. And don't listen to the CAVE people, those are Citizens Against Virtually Everything" (for which she was cheered and applauded.)

In that intolerant atmosphere, a benign-appearing item appeared on the June 11, 1996 City Council agenda listed as "changing the order of business" at the Council meetings. But it didn't just "change" the Council's "order of business." It quietly erased an item of Council business -- "communications from the public" -- which were items put on the Council agenda by members of the public if they followed a specific procedure (below).

"Communications from the Public" -- publicly agendized items -- were rarely used. In the pre-internet era when Council agendas had to be viewed in hard copy form at City Hall or at a local library, a member of the public had to compose and file material in writing for Council consideration and meet a specific deadline. Despite its infrequent use, the procedure was a potentially powerful tool. Instead of only three minutes to speak on non-agendized subjects on which the Council can't legally act (and the Mayor can simply say "Thank you, next speaker"), a public agendizer could present his/her item and other members of the public could speak to it, pro and con, and the Council ultimately had to take some voted action. That action could support the item and advance it for further action, or make a substitute motion to take some other action, or simply "receive and file" (taking no further action)...but one way or another, there'd be a Council recorded vote.

Below is the LB Municipal Code showing the Council's order of business as it appeared before the June 1996 agenda item (with the "communications from the public" section circled in red by us:)

The June 11, 1996 agenda item "changed the order of business" by quietly removing that LB civic right. Below is the amended Council "order of business":

The vote was 9-0: Yes: Oropeza, Lowenthal (Alan), Drummond, Clark, Robbins, Topsy-Elvord, Donelon, Kellogg, Shultz. Two days later on June 13, 1996, Mayor O'Neill signed the amended ordinance.

And poof: the public's ability to agendize Council items disappeared.

A ghostly remnant of the public's previous right remains in LB's Municipal Code. Section 2.03.090 A includes the procedural text: "No ordinance, resolution, motion, petition, appeal, report or any other matter, thing or proceeding whatsoever, presented by any person not a member of the Council [emphasis added], shall be presented to or considered by the Council unless the subject matter thereof, signed by the person desiring to be heard in connection therewith, is presented, in writing, to the City Clerk before twelve o'clock (12:00) noon of the Thursday immediately preceding the date of the meeting at which the same is to be considered..." [emphasis added] This verbiage is now a headless zombie with no connection to any item in the Council's "order of business" for "any person not a member of the Council" to implement it. Pretty slick, huh?

Present day consequences

Consider just a few of the issues -- in the past year alone -- on which LB's Mayor/Council have failed to act. On each one, the public could have required Council discussion and a recorded Council vote: oppose SB 35 (erased multiple CEQA land use appeal rights, reduced local land use discretion); replace Round-Up pesticide in LB parks...and discuss and implement locally crafted aggressive and systematic administrative enforcement of fireworks laws, a failure last year that arguably contributed to this year's "warzone" fireworks ( coverage here.)

In 2017, wrote that "grassroots and neighborhood groups should make it a priority to inform their electeds that they want the ability to agendize Council items restored." In August 2017 opined: "[R]estoring the public's right to agendize items should be among issues in April 2018 Mayor/Council elections." We regret that this didn't happen.

Of course the public agendizing procedure should be updated to include digital procedures. Of course safeguards should be included to prevent abuses of the procedure. And of course some incumbents will respond "If someone can't get a Councilmember to agendize an issue, it likely won't pass and it's probably not important." They don't get it. Restoring the public's right to agendize items is important when electeds show themselves deaf to matters on which the public wants action. This ought to matter to LB incumbents who now want the public to approve various anti-reform power-concentrating Charter Amendments and elect some of them to higher office

This reform isn't radical or new. It's a right that the people of LB had and restoring it is long overdue.

It's a democratic check and balance that respects the public, consistent with the principle that LB's Mayor and Council are supposed to serve the public, not vice versa. LB residents shouldn't have to beg, like serfs to their masters, to have their Councilmembers discuss and cast recorded votes on matters that the public wants done.

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