It has been eighteen months since the West Hollywood City Council voted to eliminate the five council deputies. The decision to dismantle the council deputy program that had existed since the founding of the city was rushed, made during a period of what can most charitably described as a highly charged period of political stress. But over the last several months I have heard more people questioning the wisdom of that vote and asking if the residents of West Hollywood have been well served by that decision.
At the time, eliminating the deputies seemed like a solution to the ongoing dysfunction on the third floor of City Hall. People were shocked by the deputies’ salaries, which had escalated in recent years and seemed excessive. While I made a rather lonely public argument that the council should not make a decision in haste, respected members of the community, indeed several of my friends, urged the council to dump the deputies. The city manager and city attorney were actively working against the deputies, who I believed were being made scapegoats for a lack of managerial leadership and political dysfunction.
I admit that I was perhaps being a bit naïve and nostalgic in regard to the issue of the deputies. When I joined the city council in 1994 the five council deputies operated quite differently, and there was a sense of camaraderie and professionalism that tended trump any of the rivalries between the council members. There was an open door policy at City Hall at the time; council deputies and council members tended to pop in to socialize and talk shop. Indeed the council deputies tended to keep the lines of communications open rather than exacerbate dysfunction between the council offices. But more importantly, constituents felt that the deputies gave them a direct line to city council members and city government.
Admittedly this was a program that was unique for cities our size, but then again West Hollywood always liked to consider itself special. There were occasional issues, and sometimes deputies’ efforts were duplicative or redundant, but given that the council member job is part-time and the council members have real jobs, the deputies were able to provide council members with an independent analysis of what was going on both inside and outside City Hall. In a city manager form of government deputies tended to provide perspectives that were not distilled by management.
The long and short of it, it seemed to me that the deputy program seemed to work pretty well for both the public and the city council for close to 30 years. It seemed to me that the program went off the rails not because the deputy system was inherently flawed but because of personal dysfunctions that were allowed to fester due to lack of political maturity by certain council members and an abdication of affirmative leadership by the city manager.
Under the current system it does not appear that the city is saving any money. It in fact appears to be more expensive.
The current system is more efficient when it comes to drafting agenda items. Indeed the city council agenda has increased dramatically and has become incredibly long and unwieldy as items seem to be crammed on to the meeting agendas without any rhyme or reason. The meeting agendas lack any sort of prioritization and regularly run past midnight, precluding meaningful public participation. In the past the city manager worked as a traffic cop to assure the agenda was not gridlocked, and back in the day, our budget placed limits on the agenda.
Ten years ago consent calendar items seldom reached Z. Now we regularly see items going to ZZ and even beyond. Having 50 or so items on the consent calendar, many of them approving expenditures over $100,000, does not lend itself to thoughtful deliberation by the city council.
In the days of council deputies, the calendar was self-limiting due to the duties of the deputies. Given the amounts of time deputies had to spend dealing with constituent services, their time to draft legislation was limited. That meant they tended to prioritize what items they placed on the agenda. The current system appears to be too efficient in getting items on the council agenda; indeed a council member merely needs to give direction, and the item is drafted. Now agendas are cluttered with items that are often ill conceived, redundant or self-promoting, with a tendency toward micromanagement. The council can’t seem to focus on issues of actual importance. Important items are heard in the dead of night when the public is absent and the council members are tired. Debate is stifled and rushed rather than deliberative and thoughtful. This is not good government.
Today it seems that when council can’t come to a consensus, they just hire an expensive consultant to investigate the proposal and kick the decision down the road. It is not a very economical way to conduct city business.
Maybe it is too late to resurrect the deputy program. But I often hear from residents that without deputies the council members are far less accessible, and residents do not believe their issues are being communicated. Perhaps, learning from the recent mistakes, we could re-design this program to provide the city council with more personalized support staff without the positions being politicized. Maybe something akin to an intern program or council aides, positions that would be a bit less grandiose in title and subject to supervision by the city manager. Certainly the pay could be less and the hiring process more open and professional. A system based upon cooperation rather than competition would be essential. Making government more accessible to the public is always a worthy goal.
Ideally we can have a discussion on whether the city should explore returning to a modified council deputy program to insure better communications between the individual council members and the public. Maybe this is not possible and maybe time for this sort of program has passed. Maybe the public simply does not believe a program like this can be non-political. But is a discussion worth having.
Let’s have an open discussion if this is a direction we want to explore and let the discussion start here. I look forward to your comments.
Steve Martin in an attorney and former member of the West Hollywood City Council who is a candidate in the March 7 election to fill two council seats.