Council planning workshop covers priorities, changes on agenda format, meeting process

By SARA HALL

The Laguna Beach City Council Planning Workshop last week covered the usual annual priority-setting session, but also included discussion and direction for staff on areas of improvement and potential changes to the agenda format and council meeting process.

Councilmembers spent more than six hours on January 19 discussing priorities, policy initiatives, city finances and importance projects. Council and staff went through a list of 62 policy initiatives and larger projects.

After reviewing the long list of priorities and action items, Councilmember Bob Whalen commended staff on their work and effort to move projects along.

It was excellent work and fun, agreed Mayor Sue Kempf.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

City Council discussed priorities for 2024 and areas for improvement during a workshop last week

The meeting also covered a number of observations and suggestions for potential improvement by Interim City Manager Sean Joyce.

In his written report, Joyce noted that there are several opportunities identified “to address lingering issues hindering operational efficiency while creating a path to more consistent application of City Council and administrative policies.”

Last week, he recalled that when he was first brought on board, he was directed to share any ideas on how to improve and “do what we do even better tomorrow than we do today.”

“That’s a fun part of what I get to do, is to raise the bar and work with others to do just the same,” Joyce said.

He hasn’t been met with any resistance and the group has been very receptive to his suggestions, he added.

Joyce had a list of 10 items as potential areas for improvement.

First up, he asked if the policy related to how agenda items are added by councilmembers is meeting the council’s expectations. It was an open-ended question for councilmembers.

“Is what you’re doing working?” he asked.

Currently, a resolution city council adopted in 2022 lays out the method regarding how a councilmember can request an item to be placed on the agenda. According to the policy, after a councilmember asks to agendize an item, the city manager determines if adequate staff resources are available to provide an analysis prior to it being placed on the agenda, and, if so, assigns staff to prepare a report for council consideration within 60 to 90 days of submitting the request. If staff cannot provide an analysis prior to the meeting, the initiative will be presented to council without it within 30 to 60 days of submitting the request, and if a majority of the council supports committing staff resources to prepare an analysis, then it will be placed on a future agenda.

They aren’t strictly adhering to the policy, Joyce noted.

Joyce also shared some examples of items that were urgent and placed on the agenda under his authority, as well as some alternative methods that other area cities use.

“The current policy doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Mayor Pro Tem Alex Rounaghi.

It essentially puts the city manager in a position of having to make judgement calls on policy decisions, he added, which is not the role of the city manager.

Rounaghi suggested that a councilmember tells the city attorney they would like something on a future agenda and at the beginning of the following meeting the topic is placed under council comments and if there’s support from a majority of the council for staff analyzing the item, it will be agendized for a future meeting.

Whalen doesn’t have an issue with the current policy, but also wasn’t opposed to changing it. He also cautioned his fellow councilmembers about being judicious with how often they request a new item, considering their current workload and priorities for the year.

Councilmember George Weiss countered that the role of councilmembers is to initiate ideas that may or may not turn into policy. They just have to differentiate between a discussion item and an item that takes up staff time.

Answering a question about if the item would include public comment, City Attorney Megan Garibaldi said if it’s a separately agendized item, even if it’s only to seek council direction on whether or not to bring the item back with a full staff report, they still have to take public comment if the topic is listed. According to the Brown Act, there has to be the opportunity to comment on an agendized item.

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In other examples, the idea is to not place the subject matter of the request on the agenda, but instead have a line that notes something similar to “items for future council consideration” and councilmembers can raise a new potential issue for consideration at a future meeting. If there’s a majority in agreement, council can direct staff to study an issue and return with a report. In this case, the topic itself is not an agendized item, she added.

Joyce noted that in San Clemente, where he previously served as interim city manager, there is time reserved near the end of the agenda (listed as “future agenda items”) when councilmembers can ask if the rest of the council would be interested in placing an item on a future agenda. The item topic is not listed on the agenda and is not contemplated (by the entire council or by staff) prior to the request. There is no discussion. If another councilmember seconds the request, it returns to council as soon as possible, but with very little staff analysis; if a third hand is raised in support of hearing the item, it returns a little later with a prepared staff report.

In Newport Beach, near the beginning of the meeting is a “non-discussion item” for “matters which councilmembers have asked to be placed on a future agenda.” It lists who brought the item forward, but there is no report to accompany the item and no comments (from councilmembers or the public) are made. The council takes a straw vote on whether or not to bring it back as a regularly agendized item.

Whalen liked the San Clemente approach with one modification: It shouldn’t return to the council unless the request receives a majority vote for the item to return.

Staff shouldn’t spend time on anything there isn’t a majority of support for, Rounaghi agreed.

Whalen suggested that, near the end of the agenda, some time is allotted for any councilmember to bring something up and if there’s a majority of the council that wants to bring it back to a future meeting.

Regarding a timeframe of bringing an item back, Whalen noted that there are “realities of juggling agendas.” They have to be reasonable in length and there has to be an appropriate amount of time for staff to analyze the issue, he said.

There is also confusion on how committees can get items they’ve recommended on the council agenda, Rounaghi added. Under the new suggested procedure, the committee’s councilmember liaison can request bringing the item back for a future discussion. It keeps it simple, he noted, and not making the staff be the go-between.

He also asked to include a six-month strategic planning update.

There was a majority of support for Whalen’s suggestion and Rounaghi’s additions.

The next step is for staff to prepare an amended policy to reflect the council consensus, which would then be brought to the council during a regular meeting for consideration and potential adoption, Joyce explained.

In Joyce’s second observation in an area of potential improvement, he asked council to consider an updated agenda format. The current system dates back to 1941, he noted. Moving into a modern format will update the process and better reflect the council’s contemporary interests. Joyce asked councilmembers to consider if an updated meeting format would help better manage the business of the city and, simultaneously, better serve the community.

Kempf noted some of the differences related to roll call for closed session, public comment on closed session items, adding or deleting items from the agenda, public comments on non-agendized items and pulling items from the consent calendar.

Weiss suggested that a council majority should decide whether or not to take an item off the agenda rather than the mayor or city manager “summarily taking it off.” In the past, many members of the public have attended the meeting for an item that ultimately gets removed from the agenda, although they are still allowed to comment, he noted.

Circumstances sometimes change between when the agenda and staff reports are posted on Thursday and the meeting is held on Tuesday that require that an item is removed from the agenda so staff can study it further, Joyce pointed out. It’s rare, he said, but it happens. An example, he added, is if there’s a mistake or an accidental misrepresentation in a staff report that could have significant implications. It would be wrong to leave it in, he said, and for reasons like that, the city manager should have the ability to remove an item from a staff report.

There could also be a legal issue if the item wasn’t noticed properly, several councilmembers agreed.

Kempf suggested adding language to state that the city manager make their “best effort” to notify the council as soon as possible if there is an issue with an item.

Public comments on non-agendized items are up to three minutes each (at the discretion of the mayor to shorten to allow for more speakers) and for a total of 45 minutes (versus the current 30 minutes). The proposed example also states that speaker cards may be used by the city clerk’s office for the orderly conduct of the meeting.

Regarding items pulled from the consent calendar, the proposed language, as written, does not allow for members of the public to pull items from the consent calendar, Joyce clarified. They could instead use the time during public comments for the consent calendar (which is prior to councilmembers announcing which items they would like pulled) to speak to the item. They can ask that an item be pulled to hear more information on the matter, however there would not be additional public comment on the item if it were ultimately pulled by a councilmember.

The suggested agenda format includes “councilmember items” at the end of the agenda, which is when councilmembers can request a topic for a future agenda.

In another point of observation for the council to consider, Joyce referenced the November discussion on the process to appoint a mayor and mayor pro tem, following a request from Weiss to consider establishing a policy requiring rotation of the roles, which ultimately failed to find a majority support.

On Friday, Joyce recommended council direct staff to memorialize the deliberations and conclusion of that discussion so it can be included in an ordinance that will be codified.

“The municipal code…is just woefully deficient in reference to the mayor and city council,” he said.

The suggested language in the updated example states that council will meet on the first Tuesday in December after the general municipal election, provided that the results have been certified, and will install the newly elected councilmembers and choose one of its members as mayor and another as mayor pro tem. Three affirmative votes are required.

In his fourth point of observation, Joyce recommended establishing a City Council policy for defining the authority that a member of the council has to initiate an assignment of the city attorney’s office to prepare a written legal opinion and distribution of the same.

In his example, Joyce explained the purpose as “to provide clear direction regarding the distribution of city attorney resources and written legal opinions, henceforth, requested by a member of the Laguna Beach City Council.”

“We would really like you setting your limits versus us trying to make sense of what we think makes sense,” Joyce said.

This is a good idea, Rounaghi commented, speaking to the budget, it costs the city money every time they ask the city attorney to look into an issue.

The suggested example policy allows councilmembers to directly seek advice from the city attorney, who will endeavor to answer the question and provide an opinion in a reasonable timeframe, but also notes that any single request for legal advice from any individual councilmember requiring more than two hours of legal research and/or analysis shall require approval and direction from the entire council.

Weiss questioned how many times over the last few years individual councilmembers requested the city attorney look into specific issues regarding land use, policy, taxes and fees, and what that cost the city in total.

“What problem are we trying to solve?” he asked.

While she can’t speak to the last several years before she came to the city, Garibaldi said she has received inquiries on specific subject matters.

“The devil is in the details on a lot of legal questions and so we can give preliminary answers, but when we have to go and research an issue and analyze it, it quickly…becomes a project that requires a number of hours and that’s a budget question,” she said.

She’s happy to look into whatever the council wants, but she’s trying to be mindful of the city budget as well.

Councilmembers are elected to create policy and in order to do that they sometimes need legal opinion, Weiss said. The proposed policy limiting it to two hours (which costs approximately $500) is very restrictive, Weiss added.

She doesn’t want to limit the free-flowing conversation she has through emails or phone calls from councilmembers about an agenda item or an issue, Garibaldi replied, but when it becomes a “deep dive” that should be a council decision.

“It’s not intended to restrict legal opinions at all, it’s just asking for council direction, as a body, because you act as a body,” she said.

Councilmembers can still ask preliminary questions and seek general advice on issues, she added.

Weiss alternatively suggested setting a councilmember budget, possibly $5,000, for individual requests.

Although there was little interest in the idea and Garibaldi noted that she has not seen that practice at other jurisdictions.

After some discussion, a majority of councilmembers agreed to set the limit to three hours.

Councilmembers also discussed committee workplans and assignments.

As another area for potential improvement, as suggested by Joyce. In addition to the council policy initiatives that are the subject of city staff’s ongoing workplan, new significant work efforts arise throughout every year requiring redirecting staff attention and financial resources, he wrote in his description.

“This is customary – and necessary – in every city,” he wrote. “The organization must be nimble to adjust to changing policy priorities and the City Council should be aware that redirection of attention to changing priorities can affect the pace of progress of other policy initiatives.”

For example, this year, addressing a need for more pickleball courts, exploring community pool expansion (and associated funding and ongoing operational costs), reviewing fuel modification treatment protocols (glyphosate alternatives) and other important community matters arose after last years’ January planning workshop.

“Another organizational dynamic affecting organizational throughput with which to be aware is the collective staff effort given to the workload of performing routine work while also pursuing ambitious annual workplans of certain city committees and otherwise supporting the work of other boards, commissions, committees and City Council subcommittees,” he explained in the written document.

There was also a majority of support for Rounaghi’s suggestion of reducing the size of the larger committees to no more than seven and refining the workplans.

Council also discussed a few other areas of potential improvement that Joyce has observed, including: Prohibition of placing items on the council agenda that are of a nature outside of the city’s jurisdiction; recodification of the municipal code; comprehensive review of the zoning code; city financial policies and procurement, and council, commission and committee action minute policy.

The workshop also included a list of 62 policy initiatives and larger projects, including: Outdoor dining program, commercial district beautification and maintenance ordinance, Downtown Specific Plan phase two, Promenade on Forest concept development, a senior and affordable housing program, update to the open space and conservation element (including watercourse mapping), climate action and adaptation plan, an analysis of community choice energy and potential joint powers authority, an assessment of solar panels on city facilities, implementing the parking and mobility master plan, Laguna Canyon Road improvements and the facilities master plan.

On each of the items, councilmembers asked questions of staff, provided direction and comments, and received updates on the status of projects.

Councilmembers participated in activity aimed at identifying priorities by placing sticker dots on their top issues. After some additional explaining of the process, councilmembers placed a “super sticker” on the issue that was the most important to each of them (and already had at least three other priority stickers).

The idea was to find out what issues had a majority of support and then home in on the topics that are the most important to each councilmember, Joyce explained.

Several priority stickers and Councilmember Mark Orgill’s “super sticker” were placed under artist live/work housing.

Orgill and Rounaghi were appointed to work with city staff to develop an initiative that could help support preserving artist housing in the city. The ad hoc committee is expected to present its findings to the full council in the first quarter of 2024.

The committee and staff have been working on evaluating a number of housing options and potential policy initiatives to put together and consolidate into a report focused on preserving artist live/work housing, explained Assistant to the City Manager Jeremy Frimond. They feel confident that the report is in its final stages of preparation, he announced, and it should be presented to the entire council in March or April. It will also include some recommendations for the council to consider for next steps.

Plans for Laguna Canyon Road improvements also received several stickers in support and a “super sticker” from Rounaghi to note the importance of the project.

The latest action noted in the list of projects was the update presented to council on January 9. The discussion focused on the city potentially taking over ownership of the road and undergrounding utility poles. Councilmembers voted 4-0 (Orgill was absent) to proceed with public engagement for the project, move forward with submitting applications for various grants and submit a relinquishment initiation letter to Caltrans to enter negotiations for the acquisition of Laguna Canyon Road. The total project cost is estimated at $105 million. City staff is expecting to receive a large portion of grant funding.

Staff is anticipating to return to council with a funding plan in spring.

Environmental stewardship with an assessment of solar panels on city facilities was also labeled a “super priority.”

That’s one they’ve “lagged on,” Joyce noted, so the emphasis placed on the project through the sticker activity is an important message for staff to take away from the workshop.

According to the updated description provided in the list, in early 2024, the city is set to receive a comprehensive microgrid resiliency report, covering city hall, Susi Q, corporate yard, and the LB Community and Recreation Center. The report will offer guidance for implementing solar and battery backup systems at the evaluated facilities. The proposed projects may be deliberated upon by the council either in an upcoming meeting or as part of the budgetary process.

Under a sheet for “new ideas,” councilmembers added and emphasized with multiple stickers, three high priorities: Performance measures (LEAN 6 Sigma, ProcureAmerica), Downtown Action Plan and revenue enhancements.

Internal operational improvements also continue to be a priority and specifically: Exploring community development opportunities to improve customer experience, pursue grant funding, develop the workforce investment initiatives and executive team recommendations for enhanced community communication.

Earlier in the meeting, Assistant City Manager/Chief Financial Officer Gavin Curran provided a financial outlook for the city.

Curran noted that revenues are “softening” and returning pre-pandemic average growth. According to Chapman University’s economic forecast, there won’t be a recession in 2024, just slow growth.

There are also approximately $2.5 million in upcoming known expenditures to the city budget, Curran noted, including $1.5 million in salaries assumption, which reflects labor agreements, $600,000 CalPERS unfunded liability payment increase and $400,000 financing authority debt service payment increase.

The general fund revenue forecast is expected to see an overall 1% increase over the prior year, Curran said. Once some of the key revenue sources settle, they anticipate a bump in the following fiscal year and the forecast assumes a 3% increase for 2024-25.

Programs/costs that could impact the general fund forecast include labor negotiations with fire and police groups, increased costs for the fuel modification program (depending on success of grant applicants), the fire department standards of cover and additional funding for ongoing strategic planning efforts.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.


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