California Government Code 54950 and its extended provisions are called the Ralph M. Brown Act. The act, basically, governs open meetings for local government bodies, but it covers a lot more, including communication among elected officials.
Overall, the Brown Act is a pillar of good government because it prevents back room deals. However, in my opinion, there is one situation where the Brown Act makes things worse — that’s when organizational rifts need major repair and that’s the current situation at the Hollister City Council. Their inability to solve this dysfunction in private is hampering their work on almost everything in public.
By expressly prohibiting serial meetings conducted through direct communications, personal intermediaries or technological devices for the purpose of developing a “concurrence as to action to be taken," the act means you can’t make any agreements in private. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes an agreement, in the form of a general direction, is necessary to get anything done. Well, if you can’t do it in private, do it in public by consensus.
I’m not party to the details or dynamics of the legally allowed closed-session council meetings, but when they run significantly overtime and all participants exit bearing the countenance of the Grim Reaper you can bet things aren’t going well.
The fact that five elected officials may have 10 different views on any contentious subject is a given; the obvious question is where do you go from there? Stalling out is a bad option for government bodies. Even good, dedicated, politicians cannot avoid leakage when serious disputes – and the council has several – can poison the well for everyone.
The system is not built on agreement, it’s built on trust and once that is gone it’s all gone. At this time, the undercurrent of mistrust is palpable and it is undermining the city’s ability to find a way through the difficult decisions that have to be made in many critical areas. The mayor and council members appear to be more dedicated to winning their individual battles than winning the war against ineffective governance.
Individually and collectively, they should take heed of General Pyrrhus who, surveying the results of his hard-won but costly battle, said wisely, “Another such victory and we are lost.”
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