El Cajon shuns light on government by crony
Union Tribune (2007-02-22) Raymond Lutz
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Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “The most important office in a democracy is that of the citizen.” But typical citizens find overseeing the entire local, state and federal governments intractable, and throw the notion out as ridiculous.
At the same time, the media (the Union-Tribune included), who might otherwise provide a measure of oversight, shirks from that responsibility and instead courts the wealthy and powerful forces who also advertise in that same media, doing little more than to report superficially on the corruption. As a result, officials who are supposed to serve the public assume that they can help out their business buddies, line their own pockets, or promote their favorite religious beliefs on the back of the taxpayer.
I doubt many citizens think this situation is appropriate, but it continues, nonetheless.
East County citizens have watched in disbelief as these forces took over the high school district, college district, East County Performing Arts Center, and certainly, the El Cajon City Council and the Redevelopment Agency.
Now, some citizens have had enough, and have formed citizens' oversight panels (COPs) to provide oversight of councils, boards and planning groups. Already, the group has a Web site at Citizens Oversight
.org, and is having an effect. We are having fun doing it, too.
At the Feb. 13 meeting of the El Cajon City Council, five COPs panelists appeared with golden badges to push for improved access to public documents, suggesting the City Council agenda should be posted in its entirety on the city's Web site, that the city should avoid placing large agenda items on the consent calendar, and that the city rushed to give free days at the East County Performing Arts Center to insiders without offering those free days to other organizations.
Without a doubt, the city of El Cajon does its best to suppress access to information, despite laws to the contrary. The agenda posted on the Web site and in the kiosk outside City Hall is only about 1 percent of the information in the actual agenda, and most of the items omit even the text of the resolution being recommended.
The agendas are prepared and posted to the city Web site only minutes before the 5 p.m. closing of the City Clerk's Office on Friday evening, the rest of the information remaining unavailable to the public until Monday morning. That leaves little more than a day to review an agenda that is typically more than several hundred pages, and the portions suppressed from the Web site can only be accessed by physically going to the City Clerk's Office and reading it over the counter or paying fees for hard copies.
What is the city is trying to hide?
It would be very easy to post the entire agenda on the Web site, and would save paper to boot. The notion that there is not enough space on the Web server, an excuse cited by City Manager Kathi Henry, holds no water under scrutiny. You can get a 200 gigabyte site for only $6.95 per month. That's less than the cost to copy one agenda the way the city is doing it now, and would certainly hold all the agendas ever produced by this city in their entirety, and then some.
The other strategy used by the city of El Cajon to suppress citizen involvement is to place important agenda items on a consent calendar, with the whole slate voted on without even the title of the agenda items being read to the public.
One agenda item at the Feb. 13 meeting on the consent calendar was to approve a bond proposal, the city refinancing its original $91 million debt and taking on another $15 million of debt. This was a document of several hundred pages and would take hours to read.
Taxpayers should be concerned that such a large agenda item affecting their tax rates is hidden on the consent calendar, normally reserved for housekeeping items. Raising taxes? Council members don't want to talk about that, do they?
The other issue brought forward by the COPs was the rushed giveaway of free days of use of the ECPAC theater to Tom Black and his video production company to produce another Video and Film Festival at the theater, and another day to the East County Chamber of Commerce.
A film festival might be a great idea, but Black's organization provided no business proposal at all, with no plans for eventually becoming solvent. The event drew only a few attendees last year, a virtual failure. Is Black planning on free days next year as well?
We would rather see the city put these days out to the public for proposals from all points, and not just from Mayor Mark Lewis' chum, Tom Black, the insider who also has the video production contract for City Council meetings.
The East County Chamber of Commerce may have a great public service planned for the other free day, but it is difficult to fill the ECPAC theater with 1,142 seats with such an event. While 200 to 300 people may be considered a huge success, with 800 to 900 seats empty it will feel like a failure. The chamber would be well served to usethe community center by the library for that event. No matter how you slice it, these were quick and dirty giveaways of city assets with no real public scrutiny, a practice that should stop.
After catching the city of El Cajon red-handed, playing blatantly illegal religious and partisan videos on the government access channel, I attempted to get the city to take up the issue of the use of the government access channel as an agenda item, submitting a written communication to the city in compliance with all the rules set out in the policy and procedures of the city. Unfortunately, the mayor violated these policies by omitting the written communication from the agenda and refusing to provide a request for the disposition of the request.
After months of delay, we have yet to hear from the city on this matter, but the COPs have not forgotten it. Despite inaccurate reporting that the videos were not approved by the city, we believe someone should reimburse the city $20,000, and Bob Mc Clellan
, the instigator of the video scandal, is a prime candidate to open his wallet.
There are still many boards, councils and planning groups that need public oversight, and it is great fun to know that we are making a difference to limit these public officials and their unethical activities. Please visit our Web site for more information.
Lutz is an El Cajon businessman and coordinator of Citizens Oversight