What could possibly be a more important responsibility for our City Council members than making decisions about how West Hollywood spends its money? It is one of the most critical ways in which they represent the will of their constituents. How priorities are set for the way our money is spent says everything about the kind of City we are.
Why then is the proposed new City Budget so opaque that it is utterly impossible for the Council to review the City’s expenditures in any meaningful detail? And why is it being treated like just another item on a crowded Council agenda on Monday night? Are the Council members so lazy that they prefer to leave the Budget up to an unelected City Manager and staff? Or do they just not care enough to insist on more details?
Either way, it’s a Dereliction of Duty for any Council member who does not take the responsibility to the residents and our City seriously enough to carefully review every detail of our Budget once every two years. If they are unwilling to commit the time, energy and focus to that primary responsibility, they should not seek and do not deserve to serve on the City Council.
At Least Let the Residents Do the Job
At the very least, greater detail should be disclosed so we, the citizens and businesses, can see exactly where our money is going. If the Council doesn’t care, we certainly do. We should have the opportunity to make informed recommendations to our Council members in an open forum allowing sufficient time for the members to discuss it with us openly and at length.
Beverly Hills has a separate community meeting to discuss their budget before it is presented at a Council meeting. West Hollywood should do the same. Instead, WeHo’s Budget is squeezed into Monday night’s overwhelmingly full Council meeting along with many other contentious and vital issues. Is this the importance Council places on the rights of their citizens to have a voice in the City’s priorities for the next two years?
I wish I could say this is an aberration, but we all know it’s not. This is how our City is being run. City Hall packs as many issues as possible into a Council agenda hoping most residents won’t have the patience to sit through 3 or 4 or 5 hours in a packed room barely able to hear what’s being said - just for the opportunity to speak for 2 minutes to bored or tired Council members who ignore their comments.
What’s the Big Deal?
If you’re looking for detail, you’ll find some on the revenue side (see linked budget at pdf pages 73 – 79), but where are the expenditures broken down, likewise, into detailed categories? Well, if you can find it in the Budget, please tell me where it is. I went through all 300 pages and didn’t find it. The multitude of pages dedicated to self-congratulatory prose for each department with a few general categories of expenditures aren’t very enlightening.
Apparently the idea is that as long as the Council is not spending the City into oblivion, “how” the money is being spent shouldn’t matter. There should be no complaints or concerns.
But, boy, does the story change when the “people” actually want something. Then you’ll hear it’s not in the budget and the City can’t afford it. That’s where the priorities come into play. Want to do something with “Tara” - . Want a little trolley bus that we can hop on to get around WeHo that eases traffic and saves us the parking hassles - .
Meanwhile, there’s funding in the Budget for private contracts ($10 million worth – see linked budget pdf page 28) to do everything from to performing public outreach re: the Plummer Park plan. That’s right, they hire private contractors to “talk to the public” (see page 6). I guess talking to us isn’t in anyone’s job description.
How much does each specific contract cost and what’s its purpose? You’ll have to dig through a year’s worth of Consent Calendar items and eye popping Demand Registers to try to figure that out. Monday night, for example, they’ll be voting on a Consent Calendar with $1 million worth of contracts in the 2012-2014 budgets before a vote is even cast on the Budget itself.
Avoidance and Misdirection
Let me give you one example of omission. A year ago, Council members Duran and D’Amico asked for a breakdown of all the City’s events, how much they cost the City and how many people attended so they could audit and weed out the events that were outdated, unpopular, redundant or just too costly for what they achieved.
The City Manager finally provided a list totaling about $3 million - causing some outrage once residents saw events they had never heard of, costing a fortune for a handful of attendees. It was Where is that list of events with their associated costs disclosed in the Budget for the long postponed audit? Nowhere that I can find.
Keep in mind, we show spending only $1 million more than that on all social services contracts - exactly how much goes to actual services I don’t know.
Here’s one that is not quite honest about how the money is being spent. The City receives Measure R tax funds originally hoped to be used for a subway line through West Hollywood. No subway, of course, but WeHo still gets a little money for transportation improvements. The Budget only says the funds (revenue is listed at $310,000 for 2011) are used for street and alley maintenance and traffic signalization.
When Transportation Commissioner Scott Schmidt asked the City for an accounting a while back, the revenue was disclosed as $430,000 – all spent. 52% went to salaries and a consultant, 8% to storm drain cleaning and repairs and 40% actually went to street and alley maintenance (see the compiled information in the pictures). Without Scott’s independent inquiry, we’d have no clue from reading the budget how the money is spent and the revenue doesn’t match.
How many times do we have to demand transparency and accountability? How long are we going to accept having a little smoke blown up our bums while Council continues to act as though their constituents just don’t matter at all?
If Council members blow off this Budget like just one more issue to be voted on and dispensed with - if they care so little about the document that sets the City’s priorities for the next two years, you can rest assured their attention is not on the well being of the City and the satisfaction of its inhabitants.
If Council members don’t stop this course of action in its tracks and reorganize the current budget process to give it the serious attention it deserves and give the residents a voice, we’ll know for certain. We’ll have the final answer to our lingering question.
Whatever reasons they have for wanting to sit on the City Council, serving the will of the people is obviously not among them!!