Who speaks for the city? | TheUnion.com

Who speaks for the city?

Peppered with exclamation points and question marks, the flier that Planning Commissioner Jim Bair sent to friends and acquaintances several weeks ago was intended to entice.

“There are now more housing units proposed than currently exist combined. This will change our lives. … The decisions are being made this year!” the flier exclaimed, hoping to lure readers to the Nevada City United Methodist Church for a public forum on growth this Wednesday.

And entice it did.

Bair’s forum – and Mayor Patti Ingram’s insistence that Community Development Director Joe Heckel should not participate – provoked outspoken responses from Councilman Steve Enos and Councilwoman Linda Stevens, and other public leaders.

It also raised several questions: What exactly is the role of the mayor, who in Grass Valley is actually a member of the City Council? And what is the appropriate role for city staffers in public discussions?

A simple plan, at first

Bair didn’t know he was entering a metaphorical minefield when he first dreamed up the forum several months ago. As a member of the Nevada City church and chairman of its Church and Society Committee, Bair organized the forum to spread knowledge he had gained while serving as a planning commission.

“The people I talk to on the street and in my church don’t know what’s happening,” Bair said.

So he picked a date and lined up a panel of speakers knowledgeable about land use – Nevada County Supervisor Peter Van Zant, Heckel, Nevada County Planning Commission Chairman Kurt Lorenz, and Brian Bisnett, who hopes to develop the 365-acre Kenny Ranch.

Then, with the help of other Church and Society committee members, he drafted the now-infamous flier inviting the public to a forum titled “What will the proposed growth do to our community?”

Concerned about the legality of using his planning commissioner title, Bair submitted the flier to City Administrator Gene Haroldsen, where it was forwarded to City Council members and the city attorney.

Attorney Ruthann Ziegler OK’d the flier, but other recipients had serious concerns.

Stevens said she disagreed with its out-of-Grass Valley location and Bair’s choice of panelists.

“I just have a real issue with people from some place else making the public afraid. They’re not telling the truth, for one thing,” Stevens said.

Ingram, with the support of Councilman Gerard Tassone, had a different objection with the forum.

The mayor said she did not want to place a city staffer in a position to discuss future policy decisions and make speculative comments.

“These projects haven’t been submitted to the city,” Ingram said, referring to the four major developments – Kenny Ranch, SouthHill Villages, North Star, and Loma Rica Ranch – proposed at the four corners of Grass Valley’s boundaries.

She cited the relevance of the Street System Master Plan, which has not been adopted yet, and the trio of uncompleted studies investigating the economic effects of the major developments.

“There would be a lot of questions he cannot answer,” Stevens said. “It would give the impression he is being evasive … (and result in) an uncomfortable and awkward situation.”

To avoid such a sticky scenario, Ingram wrote a letter to Bair on Sept. 10.

“Having reviewed the draft flyer and discussed the forum with you, as City spokesperson, I have come to the conclusion that no one from the City should participate in this forum in an official capacity,” she wrote.

Ingram’s decree appears to counter the widespread notion that more information, discussion, and participation, is always good, some argued.

“We need more talk, not less,” Van Zant said. “Part of the job of public officials and senior (staffers) is to communicate with the public.”

But Ingram insisted she was merely fulfilling her role as the city spokesperson, acting to prevent Heckel from being placed in a political, and inappropriate, situation.

The mayor’s role

Grass Valley’s governing document, its 1951 charter, stipulates the mayor is the “head of the city government” and “representative of the city” – the city’s code of conduct refers to the mayor as the “spokesperson.”

As mayor, however, Ingram does not have any administrative power, or authority to act without council concurrence.

Therefore, Heckel is not necessarily forbidden from attending the forum, although he is not intending to go.

“He could certainly go to any public forum (on his own),” Ingram said.

Ingram said she was concerned, however, that Bair had not followed the proper procedure for requesting a city representative.

Instead of formally making a presentation to the council, or at least talking to her, Bair merely asked Heckel if he would speak. This procedure stems from the city’s code of conduct and the mayor’s role as a spokesperson, Ingram said.

Enos, however, said he was not aware of any procedure to request city representation. He said he is also having trouble understanding Ingram’s decision.

“I’m a bit confused as to why Mayor Ingram would refuse to allow city staff to participate in this particular public forum while similar presentations have been and continue to be made,” Enos said.

Heckel has recently spoken about development and other planning issues to the Economic Resource Council, the Board of Realtors, and several other groups.

The difference, Ingram and Tassone said, is the public and interactive nature of this particular forum.

“You have to be very careful,” Tassone said. “None of these (developments) have been proposed. The potential’s there for a lot of misinformation. … There’s no control over what can happen.”

Purely informational discussions are OK, Ingram and Tassone agreed.

The role of city staff

In Grass Valley, city staffers routinely speak to community organizations after conferring with City Administrator Gene Haroldsen and the mayor.

Sometimes it’s tricky walking the line between information and policy, but the key is not to “try to solve problems at the dais,” Public Works Director Rudi Golnik said.

“We try to be objective, try to listen… we do need to be somewhat guarded with regard to those policy issues.”

Another speaker at the forum, Van Zant, believes it is important to encourage discussion.

“Part of the job of public officials and senior (staffers) is to communicate with the public,” Van Zant said.

For Nevada City employees, communicating with the public doesn’t generally require a request for permission, Nevada City City Manager Mark Miller said.

“Our department heads are free to comment on any of the operational issues they have … my staff is pretty veteran,” Miller said.

The public forum “What will the Proposed Growth do to our Community?” is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Nevada City United Methodist Church, 433 Broad St.

Know and go

What: Discussion of proposed growth around Grass Valley

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Nevada City United Methodist Church, 433 Broad St.

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