L committee discusses report to public, response to mayor

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

On the heels of last week’s debate about the role of the Measure L Citizens Oversight Committee (see related story, this page), members discussed at Monday night meeting whether they needed to draft a formal response to the uninvited guidance from Ridgecrest Mayor Dan Clark.

The committee also discussed how to present to the public a meaningful report (to be published on a quarterly basis), and heard a swell of community support for their efforts.

The meeting opened with public comment, in which residents commented largely on the events of last week’s council meeting. Several residents raised concerns about why the city attorney wanted to meet with the committee (although he said last week it would be privately, the committee members said they intended to meet with him publicly as a group).

Others pointed out that despite criticism from the mayor, they believe the committee was performing exactly the role the public expects of them.

Jerry Taylor reiterated the solution he proposed to the council — that the city should publish a budget of expenditures without Measure L, then another as an overlay that shows how the special tax is spent. “That way there will be no ambiguity at all. It will also show the public that the council is making the hard decisions about making cuts across the board.”

He was also one of many at the meeting who criticized a pair of Daily Independent editorials last week that wrote off citizens who complained about Clark’s directive as “the same people who criticized the handling of the trash debate, often spoken with half-truths and slippery slope arguments.”

Taylor pointed out that the majority of attendees were not engaged in that previous debate, with several never attending, let alone speaking, at public meetings before. His comments were echoed by several others throughout the meeting.

Jim Fallgatter said that he hoped the council would put the issue to rest and move forward in finding solutions to the budget crisis. “That is an absolute sick idea that you take volunteers and treat them like serfs,” he said in response to Clark’s threat to replace the members of the board.

“You are not to be disposed of, as we feel that you are full representatives of the city of Ridgecrest. We are happy, all of us, that you took the time to volunteer and with the great job you are doing.”

Katie Nazeck, among the first-time attendees, said that she was shocked when she read about Clark’s directive in the paper. “First of all, thank you to you all for volunteering to be on the committee and for taking some of the heat that has apparently been thrown around.”

In discussing the committee’s first quarterly report, Member Andy Anderson expressed concern about how to report on numbers when the council has already published three drafts of the Measure L budget. Committee Member Phil Salvatore said that is the story that needs to be told.

Salvatore also gave a brief summary relating to the recent documents that he produced tracking city expenditures since 2004. The committee members wanted to look at historic trends in order to establish a baseline for police and streets — the targets of Measure L spending — so they could ensure that the special tax served to augment spending, rather than substitute it.

Fallgatter praised the analysis, adding “Are you interested in a job at the city? We’re looking for a finance director!”

The committee also addressed the merits of responding to Clark’s directive to the committee. Both the committee and public appeared to be divided on the merits of stating a position for the record versus prolonging a subject that has “caused a lot of hate and discontent.”

“Rather than inflame things again, my suggestion is we table this until we meet with the city attorney,” said Salvatore.

Although committee members said that meeting will be open to the public, a time, date and location have not yet been announced.

Other members of the committee, including Anderson and Scott Garver, questioned whether the committee should even meet with the attorney.

Anderson noted that the attorney will be representing the interests of his clients — the council — and that if the committee agrees to meet with him, it needs to take an adversarial position.

Garver said that although the committee could not judge the intent of the attorney, the actions of the mayor (who claimed the attorney helped draft his directive) left him to question whether the committee should indeed enter into this meeting in good faith.

He added his concern about how “the council’s actions have been played out by a very sympathetic press,” in reference to last week’s editorials that defended Clark and the city and criticized the committee for functioning outside of its scope, and wrote off the citizens who have publicly supported the committee.

He noted that because the Daily Independent endorsed status quo on the council during the last election, it is in the newspaper’s best interest to defend the council.

Garver also objected to citizens being unilaterally classified as “angry” in editorials. “Carol Wilson did not sound angry to me. Sharon Paxton did not sound angry. Barbara Auld was not angry.”

Auld chimed in at that point that even Jim Rachels, who has been a vocal critic of the council, was not angry in his remarks to the council.

“That’s true — even Rachels, like most others who spoke out, was looking for a positive solution,” said Garver. He said that he did not agree with Michael Neel, another resident who has objected to council intervention on the committee, on any other topic. “So when people like us find ourselves landing on the same conclusion, people should take note.”

He said that the council should understand that by maintaining independence, the committee was in fact building credibility with the public. “This way, if we ever can come to some agreement with the city, the public will know that came as a result of thoughtful deliberation.

Chair Eddie Thomas said that he understood the objections, noting that he himself had trouble with the lawyer approaching other members to share a message privately. “Since I am the chair, I would have thought he would have started with me. What he did seems disrespectful and out of order.”

However, he said, he believed the committee needed a chance to sit down with the lawyer and air concerns.

The committee also voiced support of the tone and content of Member Michael Petersen’s response to the mayor, though the group was divided on the timing of sending it.

In the end, Michael, Salvatore and Thomas voted to hold off sending the letter until after the committee met with the city attorney.

After the vote, both Garver and Anderson agreed to attend the meeting with the attorney if the majority wanted to move forward with it.

Story First Published: 2013-01-30