George Boardman: There are consequences when you give city council members a free pass
Observations from the center stripe: Smoke-free edition
IF YOU listen to the debate over the Higgins Fire Protection District tax increase, you would think we’re talking about a hospital district. Higgins is a fire department that is responsible for a lot of open space that’s primed to burn down the houses it surrounds … THE TAX that supports Higgins hasn’t been raised in 35 years. Can you name another tax you pay that hasn’t gone up in that period? … LOCAL REPUBLICANS like Dr. Ben Carson and the Democrats back Bernie Sanders for president, according to two unscientific polls taken at the county fair. Question: Who are these people going to vote for when neither man gets his party’s nomination? … AS SOMEBODY who knows South San Francisco (second) and Burlingame (fourth) well, I’m skeptical of NerdWallet’s claim that Grass Valley is the third-best place in the state to start a new business. No three cities could be more dissimilar … THEY WERE right: When the Transamerica Pyramid was being built in San Francisco in the late ’60s, signage on the fence around the construction site proclaimed it “A San Francisco Landmark Since 1972”… AMAZON FOUNDER Jeff Bezos is shocked — just shocked — that his employees are apparently being mistreated. If you really believe Bezos is shocked, I have a gold mine I’d like to sell you …
President Barack Obama famously told the Republican leadership after his inauguration in 2009 (and probably to his subsequent regret): “Elections have consequences. I won.”
Residents of Nevada City are learning (possibly to their regret) that letting people run unopposed for city council seats also has consequences.
Among other things, it makes for bad governance but good theater.
Fans of amateur theater have been treated in recent weeks to two council members and a former mayor trying to take the high road when it came to spending funds that benefited the entire community, one council member trashing another in the pages of The Union, and the husband of that council member bad-mouthing another councilor in public.
All of this was triggered by the Amgen Tour of California bicycle race, the one event guaranteed to put the Queen of the Northern Mines on the map. While the race brings money and prestige to the area, few local officials can be bothered to commit resources to participate in the event.
The one exception is Nevada City Council member Duane Strawser, who was the driving force that brought the race here in the first place, and has led the effort to land a leg of the race three times since 2010. That costs about $50,000 a year, money that Strawser raises through donations.
But he had to cancel some sponsors close to race time this year, a $15,000 loss of revenue that Strawser covered with his own funds. When Vice Mayor Evans Phelps suggested the city reimburse Strawser, you would have thought she walked into the council chambers with a mask and a gun.
“I’m having a really hard time with using public funds for this purpose,” said Mayor Jennifer Ray.
“When we talk about finding it in the budget … we’re still drawing on public funds,” said council member Terri Andersen. “It’s not our money. We’re not here to write a check for this sort of thing that was not vetted.”
While the city attorney said it was not illegal or unethical to reimburse a sitting council member, some people had trouble getting over that hurdle. During the public comment period, former council member Sally Harris had this to say: “I’m very sorry that you’re put in this position, Duane, but I think it’s illegal to reimburse a sitting council member and it’s unethical.”
Harris was sitting on the council when the city tried to pull a fast one and hire a part-time police chief who was already drawing his pension, a violation of CalPERS rules. When two complaints were made to the state, Nevada City had to hire a permanent chief earlier than it planned to.
Did anybody apologize for bending the rules? No, but there was plenty of speculation about who ratted on the city. So much for ethical behavior.
More recently, we were treated to the spectacle of city officials deliberately shirking one of their basic responsibilities — providing fire protection to the citizens of Nevada City. It’s not as if they had no warning.
When Nevada County Consolidated Fire notified the city that it would no longer provide staffing for the city’s fire department, officials had six months to solve the problem. They waited four months before asking Consolidated to delay the withdrawal of personnel while the city tried to hustle a grant.
When Consolidated refused to lift the deadline, Nevada City went short-staffed for three months in the fourth year of a drought.
Consolidated Chief Jim Turner summed it up best: “Nevada City’s governing body is saying they’re not willing to spend their money on fire service because Grass Valley and Consolidated have been giving them fire protection for the last 10 years.”
The city’s reaction? “It’s a tough situation, and I think the staff did a great job in finding an intelligent way of tackling this going into the fire season,” said Ray, with no apparent irony.
But if you can’t have good governance, you can have good theater. After the council split 2-2 against reimbursing Strawser (he didn’t vote), The Union’s editorial board questioned the decision.
That prompted Andersen to write a rebuttal in the paper, several hundred words on Strawser’s lone wolf effort to bring the race to Nevada City. Once again, she ignored the city legal counsel’s opinion that it wasn’t illegal or unethical to reimburse Strawser.
There was more fall-out to come. At the council meeting rejecting Phelps’ proposal, Councilman Robert Bergman challenged Andersen’s opposition to reimbursing Strawser.
“Your reasoning is flawed,” Bergman said. “He’s a volunteer …The fact is, it was unforeseen circumstances and it’s just patently wrong not to pay him back.”
This apparently rubbed Andersen and her husband the wrong way, because Tom Andersen used public comment time at a subsequent meeting to suggest Bergman put on his “big boy pants” and “stop acting like a 10-year-old.”
Now the council is going to consider using public money to fund the city’s participation in future Amgen races. Considering the strains this issue has already caused, we have the potential for even more good theater.
Three council members — Ray, Andersen and Bergman — are up for reelection next year. If you’re a Nevada City resident and you like the way the city is being run, you don’t have to do anything. Again.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union.
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