The Pleasanton City Council May 23 workshop on "Norms and Code of Conduct" could have been a positive turn for the council that has been referred to as a "circus" by some people outside of the community.
Unfortunately, this workshop was not about the rude and sometimes hostile treatment of one councilmember, Vice Mayor Jack Balch. It wasn't about discussing and establishing guidelines to force everyone to act like adults. This meeting was about how to muzzle Balch.
Balch is usually the dissenting "one" in the many, many 4-1 council votes. He doesn't agree with the council majority of Mayor Karla Brown and Councilmembers Valerie Arkin, Jeff Nibert and Julie Testa on many decisions they are making.
Not only does Balch make his opinions known on the dais (when he's allowed), he has the audacity to explain his reasons off the dais by posting his thoughts on social media, where he can't be shut down.
Once we found out about the special meeting (the agenda was not emailed as others are) and tracked down the staff report (which was with archived packets), we hoped the issue of the embarrassing treatment of Balch by Brown and Testa would be stopped.
Instead, it was about why Balch should stop posting on social media, especially when he doesn't agree with the majority.
Balch was called "disrespectful" by Arkin because of a Facebook post about the budget. He explained that he did not agree with how the budget was balanced with vacant positions, which is a departure from previous budgets. He also questioned spending over $10 million on discretionary amenities when the city needs to invest in a solution for clean water.
Arkin also said Balch reposting Pleasanton Weekly publisher Gina Channell Wilcox's May 12 column, "Will Pleasanton council be fiscally responsible and prioritize reliable water supply?", was disrespectful and contained "misinformation," which is one of Arkin's favorite buzzwords to go to, even when everything is factually accurate.
Balch must have seen this meeting for what it was, though, because he started questioning vague words like "respect" and "positive".
"How are we going to judge 'be positive'?" Balch asked. "How is that measured?"
He was told by Testa to not "overthink" it.
But if reposting a column is disrespectful, is disagreeing with the majority negative?
Brown pointed out the town of Danville's code, which is one of the documents included in the staff report as an example, states that once a vote is taken, councilmembers shouldn't "discredit the decision or criticize (their) colleagues for having made it."
"Facebook posts that are disparaging to others are public documents and it doesn't look (professional) if we're slamming each other," Brown said. "We should look unified."
"I believe our community is better because there is full and frank debate," Balch countered. He later added, "I've seen better things produced from this city when the dissenting opinion is folded into the outcome."
Balch does not "slam" others, or even criticize individuals. He does take issue with the decisions and methodically explains why. This is his right and responsibility.
If he's not allowed to disagree with the majority after a vote, Balch might never be able to make his opinions known.
We have seen time and again how issues are rushed to a vote -- possibly to stifle discussion of opposing opinions or maybe to just hurry things along because the majority already decided what the vote would be. Sometimes it feels almost scripted. Sometimes it feels like they put plants in the audience to speak (or to send emails) to make it appear they have a lot of support for their vote.
That's the way it felt when Brown, Arkin and Testa voted in a district election map that was clearly not the fairest for the community. It did not distribute population or use major thoroughfares as well as other maps, and it split a neighborhood in two. But it benefited an incumbent councilmember that made up the majority.
Another vote that felt scripted is when the majority unexpectedly tabled the Lions Wayside and Delucchi Parks Master Plan that was desired by thousands and decades in the making.
Another questionable incident occurred after the staff report on the city budget during the May 16 meeting. Balch said he had a few questions for staff, and Brown responded by asking if he had talked with staff prior to the meeting -- which, of course, he had, but that wasn't the point.
Councilmembers sometimes ask questions during meetings not for their own benefit but so the audience has the information and to spur discussion. By her response, Brown gave the impression she wasn't interested in informing the audience or having a conversation about a precariously balanced budget, a worrisome issue with supplying clean water to residents during the summer months and more than $10 million earmarked for an unnecessary skate park and renovation of a historic property.
These attempts to shut down Balch are recognized by more than just our staff. During public comment May 23, community members (who were unaware of the meeting until they read our preview story) referenced this, as well as the "abhorrent" behavior and "argumentative" nature of the council majority.
"Mayor Brown, you have absolutely shut down other members. Just shut them down, and that's not OK," Vicki LaBarge said. "Councilmember Testa, you held up your hand to another member to shut them down. That is wrong. That is just wrong."
Linda Kelly also called out the majority members on their treatment of Balch, saying council meetings are "painful" to watch.
"Anyone with even a casual acquaintance with council proceedings understands the current administration has a four-to-one majority. As such, one expects most of the votes to go the way they do," Kelly said. "What one does not expect is the snarky remarks, eye rolling, attempts to shut the minority member down, ridicule and demean him and make him look bad at every turn."
These behaviors do not lead to the achievement of one of the suggested goals, "To inspire public confidence in our city government."
Transparency inspires confidence. Encouraging debate and dissent inspires confidence. Being open to alternatives and compromise inspires confidence.
Summarily dismissing concerns of colleagues, staff and the public does not inspire confidence. Calling reasonable, logical explanations of an opposing opinion "disrespectful" and "disparaging" does not inspire confidence.
Seeming to have the discussion scripted and the outcome of a vote decided well before the meeting does not inspire confidence. We aren't the only ones who notice that, either.
"The appearance too often is that decisions have been made prior to entering the chamber and no amount of reasonable discussion will sway that decision," Kelly said. "The result is not always a positive outcome based on what is best for the city, and that should be your guiding light."
Testa brought up that many municipalities have codes of conduct and that these guidelines should have been in place in Pleasanton "years if not decades ago."
We agree, but would like to see more concrete terms than "show respect" and "be positive", which are very subjective and can be interpreted in different ways by different people in different situations.
We also agree with Kelly that decisions should be based on what is best for the city and a majority of its residents.
Perhaps the council should consider including some points from other municipalities' documents, such as: "Encourage dissent"; "Attempt to build consensus"; "Make no promises to the public on behalf of the legislative body"; "Recognizing that stewardship of the public interest must be their primary concern, members will work for the common good"; and the value of "fiscal responsibility."
Last week, the Pleasanton Police Officers Association (PPOA) declared an impasse in labor negotiations, citing staffing shortages because of uncompetitive compensation packages compared to surrounding communities. The city's budget is balanced using funds from vacant positions such as these.
Resident surveys done every few years consistently show that public safety is very important to Plesantonians, and they have been satisfied with the services.
But that was before what PPOA President Brian Jewell called the "deterioration" of the department because of the "city's unwillingness to competitively compensate its police officers."
We feel the projects such as the skate park and interior repairs to the Century House should be paused until the city and PPOA have come to an agreement, a solid plan has been approved for the Pleasanton water wells and treatment for PFAS and there is clarity on how the economy will affect the city's revenue streams.
In addition, it's important to take steps to present a financial status as positive as possible to secure the most favorable terms on financing for work that will need to be done to achieve a sufficient supply of clean water, which will not be inexpensive.
The council needs to be prudent, unlike in June 2022 when Brown said taking $2 million from the "rainy day fund" to pay for the renovation of Century Home was no problem at all because she was "confident this economy is going to be pretty good for Pleasanton."
A year later, if the city fills all its vacant positions, there will be a deficit of around $2 million -- ironically the amount put toward that project.
The budget goes back to the council next Tuesday (June 6) for approval. Now is a good time to remind the council majority about the importance of sufficient clean water and police officers, as well as fiscal responsibility, working for the common good and stewardship. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.