By John Earl
It’s as predictable as death and taxes: politicians say that everyone should obey the law, especially their interpretation of it, but when the law inconveniently conflicts with their own interests they just ignore it in violation of the public trust and their oath of office.
That’s what happened on Dec. 20 when, as reported exclusively in the Voice, the Huntington Beach City Council voted 6-0 to approve changes to the city’s municipal code that would strip the elected city treasurer of the powers and duties vested in that office by the City Charter (the city’s constitution) and hand them over to the Director of Finance, an appointed position under the direct control of the city manager and council, not the voters.
Simply put, the council majority conducted a coup d’état of the City Treasurer’s office, the charter be damned, even though voters said five times at the ballot box that they want an elected treasurer to provide checks and balances in order to better watch over their money.
That’s a good idea, judging from Councilmember Don Hansen’s opinion that it’s just fine to trust investment bankers to properly look after public funds in light of the drastic budget and staffing cuts that accompanied the coup, leaving a treasurer’s office that will be even less able to conduct its oversight duties.
The coup was depicted as an effort to save money—over $100,000 a year by making the treasurer a part-time position and consolidating staff.
Limiting the treasurer to conducting “core” charter duties would create more efficient management, City Manager Fred Wilson told the council, while preserving the independence of the treasurer’s office as required by the City Charter.
Wilson’s conclusions were based on a report by an outside consulting firm, but the changes he recommended and the council approved went beyond what the report called for and clearly conflict with the charter.
That report was not attached to the council agenda for council members and the public to read. Even worse than that act of negligence, when asked if they had even read the report or cross-checked the wording of the code changes with the City Charter, not a single voting council member responded.
Obviously, the City Council didn’t bother to do its homework or think of the possible long range consequences of its actions. When outgoing City Treasurer Shari Freidenrich gave her last address to the council that same night (she was elected Orange County Treasurer), she warned that its illegal actions would endanger the ability of the city to protect the taxpayers’ assets, but her concerns were casually brushed aside by Wilson and City Attorney Jennifer McGrath, as well as the council.
McGrath later conceded that her office is following up on the concerns raised by the Voice and that, “if an amendment is necessary to clarify any ambiguity, then it can be made at the second reading on January 17, 2011.”
Last year, after McGrath issued a legal opinion that said Section 617 of the City Charter—which had been approved by voters—allowed a mandated 15 percent budget set aside for infrastructure to include debt service payments for infrastructure designated bonds, she put her political career on the line.
Councilmember Devin Dwyer, who had hoped to create a city financial crisis that would force renegotiation of city labor contracts, lashed out at McGrath by calling her “another lawyer” using “legalese” to “twist things” in order to thwart the will of the people.
McGrath was attacked by local Republican Party bloggers and threats were made to remove her from office. If you believed the angry rhetoric, it was a war between Good and Evil and McGrath was Satan.
On Dec. 20 it was Dwyer who ignored the will of the voters, but he had plenty of help, even from an unlikely source sitting on the opposite side of his place on the right wing of the political spectrum.
Councilmember Joe Shaw was just as adept at practicing his own form of selective democracy. Despite campaign speeches denouncing the past city council for approving an arguably unlawful senior center in Central Park, Shaw, who was elected to the council for the first time last November, also had no qualms about voting for another arguably unlawful action just as soon as he took office.
Some on the council, no doubt, see our ailing economy as a long awaited opportunity to diminish the functionality of local government and transfer control of the public’s money to the private sector. And some council members are simply happy to claim that they have saved money for the people.
But the real bottom line is that the voters have been betrayed and may end up actually losing money along with their right to vote for a city treasurer who has real power and is accountable to them.
The City Council will have another opportunity at its Jan. 18 meeting (no meeting on Monday because of Martin Luther King Day) to undo its mistakes when the changes to the municipal code come before it for a required second reading and final vote.