Sunday, February 18 , 2018, 11:02 pm | Fair 52º

 
 
 
 

Ron Fink: Meeting Demand for Transparency in City Business a No-Win Situation

The city of Lompoc has been trying to conduct business in an atmosphere of transparency following the bad old days of the past. They haven’t quite got there yet.
 
On Nov. 29 an ad-hoc committee, comprised of Mayor Bob Lingl and Council Member Dirk Starbuck will meet to discuss with citizens their ideas for improving public participation in city government, increasing openness and transparency of all city business.
 
Folks in Lompoc have a variety of viewpoints concerning how much they want to know about their government. The majority don’t really care and would rather listen to music on their electronic juke boxes than take the time to find out what’s happening down at City hall. But for those who do care, they always seem to have a problem finding useful information.
 
I have been following the doings at City Hall for more than 25 years and I can say that the ability to find things has improved dramatically over time. Council business used to be semi-secretive and unless you watched the council meeting live on TAP-TV, the local public access channel, or attended in person, you couldn’t tell how decisions were being made.
 
The minutes of these meetings were cryptic and rarely, well never, conveyed the entire discussion. As for the many committees and commissions, unless you were directly involved as a member, you couldn’t find out what was going on because agendas weren’t readily available and minutes of their meetings almost never appeared anywhere except in the city archives at some undisclosed location.
 
You could request information via a Request for Public Records, but unless you were very precise in your wording you usually didn’t get what you hoped for in return. It was like using a generic term such “airplane” in a Google search today.
 
Providing sufficient information to satisfy everyone who thirsts for knowledge is an expensive and time-consuming task. First the city has to catalog the information so they can find it, store it so it is accessible and then let folks know how to get access to it.
 
As I said above, the city has gotten much better at dispensing information. It maintains a helpful website (www.cityoflompoc.com/), however, there could be some improvements.

To make a point, just last week, a last-minute item was added to the council agenda just one day before the council meeting, and there was no link to another item, which leaves the public wondering if the city truly is trying to be transparent yet.
 
But, if you want to view a council meeting that occurred five years ago to see what was said, the video is available by clicking the “City Council” button on the upper lefthand corner of the page and choosing the date.
 
The posting of minutes and videos of meetings is sometimes delayed by weeks and months. There seems to be no policy in place for how robust the minutes will be or how soon they will be available to the public.  
 
Only one other meeting has a voice recording of the proceedings, the Planning Commission, so if you don’t attend one of the many other commission meetings, you have no idea what was discussed or how the members reached their conclusions.
 
Some improvements could be made. For example, many meetings are held in locations that may be unknown to the public or unsuited for more than a couple of visitors.

The Airport Commission meets in a small office tucked away at the airport; some commissions meet at the Community Center; one at the Aquatic Center; and others in obscure corners of City Hall.  This leaves a curious public to search out a meeting in which they may be interested.
 
Some agendas, like the Utilities Commission have agenda items that offer very little information like “Electric Utility — Update.” What are they going to update? However, the minutes are robust and contain information that has substance. For example: “The Landfill is now a collection site for Mattress Recycling. Mattresses are now accepted at no charge and are diverted from the landfill.”
 
There are other problems that need to be discussed. I have attended commission meetings where the members discussed items that were not on their agenda. This is a violation of the open meetings laws, and the staff representative should tell them to stop this practice. It could be because those commissions only provide advice to the council, but they are still obligated to respect the Ralph M. Brown Act rules for public meetings.
 
So, I wonder what the outcome of this committee will be. Will someone provide a reasonable way to satisfy everyone?

I doubt it, because there will always be some concerned citizen at some later date who will want to know how much paint the city used for striping the streets in 1979, and they won’t get an answer.

Then they will raise a ruckus, probably leading up to an election, claiming the “city isn’t open and transparent.”
 
Good luck on this one; it’s a no-win situation.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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