Council majority reverses posting of Ad Hoc Committee meeting notices

October 17, 2012
Santa Paula City Council

A special City Council meeting to address rising utility bills instead turned into a heated discussion centered on the previously agreed upon public notice of meetings of the Ad Hoc Committee originally formed to study the issue.

Ultimately, the council majority opted to withdraw the parameters for the Ad Hoc Committee meetings they had adopted upon only weeks before. Councilman Fred Robinson voted against the change; Councilman Ralph Fernandez, who initially made the suggestion of public noticing of the Ad Hoc Committee meetings, was absent from Saturday’s meeting.

Fernandez suggested that the Ad Hoc Committee have formal meeting notices so that a Brown Act violation would be averted if a third council member attended. The October 13 special council meeting came a week after what would have been the Ad Hoc Committee’s first meeting was abruptly cancelled without explanation.

The Ad Hoc Committee was first suggested by Mayor Bob Gonzales at the September 17 meeting and adopted by the council October 1. Although many members of the council had discussed public participation in the meetings, Gonzales also stressed work study sessions with “professionals” in the field of water and energy issues; the subcommittee would then “come to the council with a proposal, with some recommendations” for action items.

Gonzales had noted the possibility of extending the financing on the wastewater treatment plant to 35 years - the plant is privately owned - and volunteered to serve on the Ad Hoc committee. Fernandez urged that the committee publicly post the meetings.

Gonzales said the direction for the committee was to have “experts and the community involved” to address “items that might surface from water coming out of the ground to water going into the ground and anything in between.”

At the October 13 meeting Gonzales repeated his “eight points” for dealing with high utility rates, including water conservation, the sale of recycled water, a solar operation and purchasing the water recycling plant which would lower the repayment interest rate. After several speakers questioned the rates and the council’s slow response to same as well as mandated rate studies, Gonzales noted, “I don’t believe for a minute this council and staff is keeping anything from the community.”

“This is a serious problem,” and Robinson said city utility rates are “too high, unaffordable and unfair... and we need to fix it.” The council, he added, should have addressed the issue in the past and “more aggressively.”

Cook said, “Everybody has their finger in water,” which can be very lucrative. “My concern is who is going to make the money, us or the private business? It should be us.”

He added that includes lowering the interest rate paid for the water recycling plant and exploring infrastructure needs to create and distribute recycled water. Many would purchase water treated by reverse osmosis: “Ag wants to buy it, Limoneira wants to buy it,” said Cook.

Cook segued into holding committee meetings in private to forego delays required by posting. 

Gonzales asked Assistant City Attorney John Cotti to expand on comments Cook made regarding negotiations and exceptions covered by the Brown Act, particularly in the matter of property acquisition and sale.   

Tovias urged that the committee move ahead and present their recommendations for solutions, whether public or private enterprises.

Brian Cullen, president of PERC - which operates the water recycling plant, but according to Cullen no longer has a minority ownership of the facility - and Floyd Wicks of Niagara Conservation addressed the council and noted they would continue participating with the city on the issues.

Cook said it would “be nice” if the city had their own expert, as Cullen and Wicks are “also involved players.... I feel if anybody gets any money out of this we should make the most.”

Cullen and Wicks, said Gonzales, are “experts in the field. You’re no expert and I’m not,” one of the reasons Gonzales said he was involving them.

After more discussion that centered on not noticing committee meetings Robinson objected, noting his concerns of the Brown Act and “that the public be aware of the meetings and can participate.”

Cotti said the postings could be done informally, but Cook said that would perhaps delay sessions.

Robinson said he did not want to create delays, but “I wouldn’t want to do anything that would even have a semblance that the public is being excluded,” and balancing the two issues was creating some confusion.

Gonzales said the point where the public would have access to the ad hoc committee’s information would be when it is presented to the full council. He added that committee meetings might involve “outside vendors” and other public officials. 

Robinson continued to object, noting he had completed ethics training that focused heavily on transparency and the responsibility of the council not to have even the perception of acting in secret.

Interim Public Works Director Brian Yanez said Cook desires that as much information as possible be gathered by the committee and others and then, when “they get all their ducks in a row,” have a large public meeting at the Community Center. Robinson still expressed concern.

Gonzales said the committee would “not engage in or sign any contract, that would not be the case; there would be no decisions that would encumber the city in any way,” but rather the committee should be viewed as fact finders returning with recommendations. “The reason we are here today is because Councilman Fernandez asked why don’t we post committee meetings,” which said Gonzales, is “a stumbling block.”

Cotti said the council would have to nullify the motion made by Fernandez, who, noted Robinson, was not at the meeting to have his say. Robinson then cast the only nay vote.

“We look forward to working with you,” Gonzales told the vendors as one of Wicks’ employees distributed documents to the council.

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