Santa Maria defends its structure
A grand jury report attempted to pry into the city's balance of power and its future
BY ANDREA ROOKS
It's been more than two years since the police chief's abrupt exodus thrust Santa Maria's government structure into a superheated spotlight of public attention.
That initial shock brought residents to City Council meetings in droves, inspired talk of potential recalls, and elicited mutterings of changes to the city's charter. Residents also moved forward with an initiative to limit the mayor's term-and then encountered technical difficulty-and only a few challengers got themselves on the 2004 City Council ballot.
After about a year of relative quiet-as the spotlight of public furor swept elsewhere-the grand jury issued a report on Santa Maria's government structure, examining the city manager's role, among other issues.
The report offered suggestions for the city to consider. The city responded. And that, as they say, is that.
Santa Maria, if you're reading, it's now up to you to learn more about your government structure, who runs the show, and how well they're representing you.
In the words of 2004-05 grand jury foreman Chick Foley, "It's an individual choice how people wish to have their government function.
"It's important that citizens get [those wishes] across to the city council and thus to the city manager," Foley continued. "We all have a vested interest in it."
The grand jury
The county's civil grand jury is a group of 19 randomly selected volunteers from across the county. Foley explained that from a pool of about 30 applicants, 19 names are drawn at random to serve for one year as the grand jury.
The investigative body is charged with looking into the operations of city, county, and special district governments.
They work from complaints-sometimes anonymous complaints-submitted by the public, which are validated before acted on, Foley explained. And not every complaint warrants an investigation.
The grand jury then breaks into committees; investigates through interviews, documents, and sworn testimony; and votes unanimously on whether to create a report on each investigation.
Once the jurors write the reports, the documents are published on the grand jury web site and released to the media. The agencies and governments in question must then respond in writing, and thus ends the grand jury's role.
"There's absolutely no political involvement or any politics being in place in the grand jury. I'd be the first to admit if there was," Foley said.
"Our job is to look at issues and make options, recommendations in a positive light," Foley continued. "We're not going to get into making decisions for them."
Through 28 interviews, 15 subpoenas for sworn testimony, and three subpoenas for personnel documents, the grand jury examined Santa Maria's government structure. Jurors also pored over city documents, including the general plan, city charter, budget, mission statement, and municipal code.
The resultant report-titled "Times are a Changin'"-states up front what the investigators were looking for:
"The civil grand jury received complaints concerning potential problems with the structure of the city government," the report reads. "Among these was a concern that a strong city manager form of government might place too much power in one individual and that the City Council was not exercising sufficient oversight of city administration."
The grand jury also looked into the city's structure with rapid population and infrastructure growth in mind.
Specifically, the report details four findings and seven recommendations:
1) The City Council should hold elections to fill vacant seats.
2a) The council should establish formal, annual written performance reviews for the city attorney and city manager, to be placed in their personnel files.
2b) The city manager should establish written performance reviews for department heads, to be placed in the personnel files.
3a) The city manager should include a briefing for each City Council meeting to update the council on each department. Council meetings should be held more often, if necessary, to accommodate that oversight.
3b) Before the city manager terminates a department head, he should give the council an explanation.
3c) The City Council should remove personnel functions from the city manager's office and make a separate human resources department to handle issues including grievance hearings.
4) The council should create a task force to examine possible governmental realignment, including possible full-time status for the mayor and council, expanding the City Council to seven or more members, and implementing term limits for the council.
Read all about it
The grand jury's report on Santa Maria government is currently available at www.sbcgj.org. The city's response will also be posted on the web site.
"The report was balanced. I think it spoke to the fact that things were positive in the city," former foreman Foley told the Sun. "We identified some issues that warrant attention by the citizens of Santa Maria."
Before launching into the point-by-point response, the city's riposte-authored by Assistant City Manager Richard Haydon-corrected what it termed several inaccurate statements (six, to be exact) and criticized the grand jury report for being a "futile attempt at examining the organizational and managerial structure of Santa Maria's city government."
"In what could be described as one of the more politically motivated reports undertaken by the grand jury in years, the... report is flawed by opinion, not fact; vague; lacks examples to support its conclusions; and was no doubt written with a preconceived conclusion in mind from the onset," the response reads.
Grand jury foreman Foley said he couldn't officially or specifically comment to the city's response, namely because the current grand jury foreman and the presiding judge hadn't yet read the city's reply.
"I think that the city manager and the City Council responded as they felt appropriate," Foley said. "We made some recommendations that we thought would assist them in making decisions in improving overall governance."
When asked about the nature of the city's response, City Manager Tim Ness said it reflected the tenor of the grand jury's report
"If the response was described as spirited... the reason for that would be because the grand jury's report was inaccurate.
"One of the things they said, for example, was that the city manager has too much unchecked power. That statement is grounded really in ignorance over the way in which city government operates," he said.
"I have daily contact with the City Council members, including the mayor," he explained. "That is the essence of this position-communication-particularly with the elected officials.
"If the City Council is not happy with my work... they can release me on any given Tuesday night," he continued.
The city's written response noted that a few of the grand jury's specific suggestions have either already been implemented or are being considered. Others were flat-out rejected because they were considered neither warranted nor reasonable to implement.
1) Always filling council vacancies through elections would be too costly ($162,00 a pop by city estimates). Plus, "the City Council has addressed each vacancy on a case-by-case basis and has thoroughly explored all available options to fill such vacancies."
2a) The city plans to implement formal, written reviews for the city manager and attorney.
2b) The city has implemented formal, written reviews for its department heads.
3a) The city manager will not be required during City Council meetings to give a detailed report on every department because it is "not only unreasonable but is not an effective use of time and resources," the response reads.
3b) The city will consider requiring the city manager to explain to the City Council any proposed action that could result in a department head's termination.
3c) The City Council will consider creating a separate human resources department.
4) The city said it will not consider appointing a task force to determine the feasibility of governmental realignment. The recommendation is not warranted because "the city has kept pace with the growth in the community and continuously reassesses its operation to meet the service demands and needs of the community," the response reads.
Furthermore, the city analyzed 25 cities of roughly the same population and found that Santa Maria measures up when it comes to size and time commitment of the council and term limits, according to the written response.
'If the response was described as spirited... the reason for that would be because the grand jury's report was inaccurate.'
Tim Ness, Santa Maria city manager
"One of the fallacies of the grand jury report... was that the larger a city government grows, the more elected officials one must have," Ness said. "Nothing's stopping the City Council from growing to seven or nine or 13. But most cities way larger than us still operate with five city council members."
Such a change could come through a voter initiative, or the City Council itself could vote to increase its numbers, limit its term, increase its pay, or extend its hours.
"First, there has to be a need for it," Ness said.
Gawking at Santa Barbara isn't exactly like steadying a gaze upon a crystal ball. But for our intents and purposes, it's close enough.
Examine: Santa Barbara's population is 90,518 and shrinking, according to Jan. 1 state Department of Finance estimates.
Santa Maria's population is 88,793 and growing. Fast.
So, by population comparison alone, Santa Maria and its sister to the south have more and more in common every day.
Both municipalities have city charters, their own city constitutions as opposed to adopting the general laws set down by the state.
Santa Maria and Santa Barbara both have the council-manager form of government, meaning the elected city council hires a city manager/administrator to run the day-to-day operations. Think board of directors and CEO of a company-the board adopts policy, the administrator acts on that policy and runs the bureaucracy.
'The citizens deserve the best government possible. If they feel that in Santa Maria they are getting the best government possible... it's their choice to make.'
Chick Foley, 2004-05 grand jury foreman
"The whole form of government is you work for the city council. They have the ultimate responsibility," said Santa Barbara City Administrator James Armstrong.
"Our City Council is very engaged," he continued. "It does an annual performance review of me. They're not bashful of commenting when they have a concern."
Like City Manager Ness in Santa Maria, Armstrong has the task of hiring and firing department heads, with the approval of the city council.
That's about where the structural similarities end, however.
The most visible difference between the two cities is the number of city council members: Santa Maria has five members; Santa Barbara has seven.
Granted, Santa Barbara is somewhat of an anomaly. Most cities below about 150,000 in population have five council members, Armstrong said.
Santa Barbara also has term limits on its council members-they can serve up to two terms-and the council members are nearly full time while the mayor is full time.
Unlike Santa Maria, Santa Barbara hasn't had any vacancies on its council in the last several years, Armstrong said. To fill potential vacancies, the city isn't unlike most in the state-if the council doesn't make an appointment within a certain period of time, it must hold an election.
Armstrong had the same qualms about elections that Santa Maria officials have voiced in the past: "Elections are pretty darn expensive."
When it comes to handling personnel issues, Armstrong said the personnel department handles grievances, but his office will get involved with high-level officials. Santa Barbara also has a civil service commission, which independently looks into personnel issues.
Armstrong said that in the 28 years he's been in city management, he's heard grumblings that his office has too much power.
"But the fact that the city manager serves at the pleasure of the city council is the ultimate accountability. You have to keep the majority of the council happy," Armstrong said.
He noted that city government hasn't always had that level of accountability. Back in the late 1800s, early 1900s city government was a patronage system, he said.
"You had elected officials basically appointing their brother in law fire chief," Armstrong said. "Now it's a corporate board of directors model. In my opinion, it's worked very well.
"That's not to say that you don't have very strong city managers sometimes," he continued. "But that's because the elected city council has allowed that."
"Take a hard look at where we are, where we've been, and where we want to go as a city," Foley said. "The citizens deserve the best government possible.
"If they feel that in Santa Maria they are getting the best government possible... it's their choice to make."
Unless you're nigh completely satisfied with how the local government is going about your business, get involved. Foley would have you get involved with the grand jury-if you're 18, a county resident, and a U.S. citizen, you qualify.
Or get involved at the city council level. You don't have to run for office to make your voice heard.
Or write letters to the editor. Your fellow citizens are reading.
The same holds true for grand-jury involvement, for speaking up at City Council meetings, and for penning your furor du jour.
"[People] should take a hard look at it and avail themselves of the opportunity to provide... payback to our county-not just throwing rocks, but becoming part of solutions to the problems in our county," Foley said.
News Editor Andrea Rooks can be contacted at email@example.com.
Let's compare apples, oranges, and bananas
Santa Maria is not Santa Barbara is not San Luis Obispo.
Now that we've said what goes without saying, let's compare these three fair Central Coast cities.
Instead of drawing solely upon the Sun's own observations about local governments, we enlisted the help of other local newspaper talent, plus a final word from the 2004-05 Santa Barbara County grand jury foreman.
In San Luis Obispo, the City Council is rather free thinking, reflected New Times staff writer Abraham Hyatt (formerly of the Sun).
"Each member seems to have a strong sense of identity," Hyatt said. "The people care deeply about issues and try to get things done. That pushes the city administrator the background."
He said it's actually fun to watch the SLO policy makers in action because there's no foreseeable outcome for any given vote.
"There are no teams, no obvious conservatives, no obvious liberals. It's never a predictable majority, which is exciting," Hyatt said.
King Harris, New Times managing editor, has also observed the straight-forward nature of SLO's elected leaders.
"It's fairly balanced. No games. No hidden agendas," he said. "The last two mayors have been pretty benign.
" Santa Maria doesn't have the balls that the City Council here does," Harris furthered.
"There seems to be an openness to listen and [hear] new ideas. They're all very approachable," he said of SLO's council.
He and Hyatt also noted that each council member seems to have his or her own extreme issues, a dynamic that keeps the body balanced.
"In the last election, if you look at the two biggest vote getters-Paul Brown is a business owner, pro-downtown; and Christine Mulholland, who's left leaning-they weren't ever pitted against each other," Hyatt said.
He also noted that there aren't term limits on the SLO City Council.
"For some reason, that never seemed to affect the quality of leadership. Here, there's big decisions, but the controversy never has to do with the City Council," he said.
"Up here, some people might say the City Council is wishy washy," Harris added. "But comparatively, I would prefer this one. It seems much more representative of what the city wants."
Nick Welsh, executive editor of the Santa Barbara Independent, said that the city administrator and the mayor have generally worn the pants in Santa Barbara's government.
"Within that, there have been some changes. In recent years, we've had a new mayor and a new city administrator," Welsh said. "Things have become a lot more decentralized than they were before.
"Prior to that, we had a strong mayor and a strong administrator. When those two ran the show, the other department heads and other council members felt like it was a game of keep-away," he continued.
Welsh said that the current council is less coherent and cohesive than councils in years past, but there isn't anyone behind the scenes directing the show.
"There's no center of gravity politically on the council-no sense of 'This is our mission and this is what we're working toward,'" he explained. "You have an administrator, Jim Armstrong, who really tries to figure out... what the council wants. He doesn't see himself as the puppet-string puller."
But, remember, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo aren't perfect.
"I wouldn't compare Santa Maria to Goleta to Santa Barbara to New Cuyama. Each has its own identity, and hopefully we'll learn from each other," said grand jury foreman Chick Foley.
Each city or town is totally different, the Goleta resident furthered.
"That makes the county unique," he said. "We have charter cities, non-charter cities, full-time city councils and mayors.
"It's innovative and very positive for the county," he concluded. "Each has strengths and problems and different methods for getting them resolved."
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