Message from Emeryville Councilwoman Jennifer West: City Attorney Ballot Initiative

July 27, 2011
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Special Meeting of City Council Required to Get the Issue on the November Ballot

(Reprinted with permission from Jennifer West’s Blog). 

Enough residents have signed a petition (10% of registered voters) to have a ballot initiative placed on the November ballot. This ballot measure would allow the voters to decide if the city should eliminate the staff position of City Attorney. For many reasons (which I will articulate briefly below and in more detail in future posts), I do not support this ballot initiative. However, I do believe that the city council must show that we hear all 567 people who signed the initiative, and we should place this item on the ballot in November. That is a democratic process, whether we like the content or not (emphasis added). 

This process is complicated by the fact that the city council does not have any meetings scheduled before the August 12 deadline that the county has for placing items on the ballot. Like many other cities, Emeryville’s City Council has one summer meeting canceled for our summer recess, and it happens to be the August 2, 2011 meeting. This was decided last December when we determined our meeting schedule for 2011. Our next scheduled meeting is on August 16, which is too late for the ballot measure to be considered for this fall. Our last meeting was on July 19, and the ballot measure had not yet been certified. The circulators of the petition knew that it was due to the city council by the July 19th meeting, and I do not know why they did not make that deadline.

My understanding from city staff is that in order to place this ballot initiative on the ballot, the city council must hold a special meeting first to then schedule a regular meeting, all of this before the August 12 deadline from the county. If 3 city council members request it, staff will schedule a special meeting. Alternatively, the mayor, Nora Davis, can call the special meeting. So far, only two council members have asked for a special meeting to consider this: Ken Bukowski and myself.

Why do I oppose this ballot initiative?
I simply do not think this is the best way to make a complex decision like this. The City Attorney answers to the City Council, and electing a City Council that you trust and that is effective is the best way to control all aspects of the city government, including the City Attorney position. I believe that good decisions depend on complete information.

Additional financial cost to the city?
Some claim that this “outsourcing” of legal work would save the city money, but there has been no evidence presented to me that this is true. On the contrary, the average of the hourly fees most municipal legal firms charge ($282/hour) is approximately twice what we are paying to our city attorney ($145/hour). Please read the staff report from our July 5th meeting for a more detailed discussion of the issue.

More to come …

One Response to Message from Emeryville Councilwoman Jennifer West: City Attorney Ballot Initiative

  1. Shirley Enomoto on July 29, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Jennifer:

    Thank you for your blog post on the city attorney issue. I have not yet read the entire 14-page staff report dated July 5, 2011 on the city attorney but want to make a few comments.

    First, I do not trust the majority of the city council and have not since I started paying attention to civic affairs. If there was more trust in the city council and city staff, I don’t believe this petition would have been circulated in the first place.

    About 10 years ago, I noticed what seemed like more than a “normal” number of claims against the city by employees or former employees. When I asked Council Member Ruth Atkin what kind of cases these were, she said, “Oh, tripping on the sidewalk and things like that.”

    Second, City Attorney Mike Biddle, then-City Manager John Flores, and Delores Turner acted improperly when they tried to eliminate former 27-year employee Leslie Pollard. It was through their actions that Ms. Pollard sued the city, and the courts agreed with Ms. Pollard. The city was forced to settle with Ms. Pollard for $3.6 million, plus her attorneys fees, in 2007. I don’t see this amount itemized in the staff report, nor do I see any itemized cost to the city (taxpayers) for employee litigation.

    Third, I lost all confidence in City Attorney Mike Biddle when, many years ago, he had to leave council chambers to research the Brown Act.

    Shirley Enomoto

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