What could a transparent El Cerrito look like?

It is a new year and we have a new city council. Paul Fadelli is our new Mayor. Council-People Lisa Motoyama and Tessa Rudnick have been sworn in replacing Greg Lyman and Rochelle-Pardue-Okimoto. Janet Abelson and Gabe Quinto remain on the council and will be up for election in 2022.

I have been highly critical of the council and what I have seen as their inaction as the financial crisis has worsened. I do want to allow the new Mayor and council members an opportunity to do things differently. Tessa Rudnick both Zoom met with representatives from this group and answered our questions. Lisa Motoyama never responded to either request. We hope as a councilperson she decides to represent all of the residents, including the ones who differ in opinion from her. Mayor (then Councilperson Fadelli) has always been fairly accessible though many of us have been disappointed that he has not pushed more on the issues. He has had only one meeting as Mayor and part of what he is implementing is more involvement from the Financial Advisory Board (FAB) which is a great development. The people on FAB are finance experts and they should be utilized as a resource, not as a rubber stamp. I attended and wrote about the last FAB meeting and it was a good opportunity to be heard in public comment and to also have some things explained. I will be adding the FAB meetings to the take action page and hope others attend. As of now, there is an opening on FAB so I encourage people to apply for that position.

What I would like most to see with the new council is a shift in the dynamic between staff/council and the community. While some attempts were made to improve this (Town Meeting Feb 2020) for the most part those of us who have been actively following and advocating on the financial issues have been ignored or told we don’t know anything. It has been exceedingly difficult to get accurate data from the city. Often we are told to dig through hundreds of pages of documents. That is not transparency. Some simple things that could happen to shift this.

  1. Give us the dedicated budget page we were promised at the Town Hall meeting. Albany is a great example. They have the information easily accessible on their website AND they do quarterly breakdowns and detailed reports. Now right now the council has been getting a monthly report (even better) but those need to be posted on the website on their own and not as part of a 200-page packet. Some of this is now being posted on the FAB page but it should all be on one designated budget page. This is just a matter of uploading the monthly reports and is a simple task.
  2. The City Manager’s reports need to have information on economic development and the budget crisis. She writes a very thorough report accented all that is good in EC which is great but the public needs to know the crisis also. Many in El Cerrito still are not aware that we are on the brink of bankruptcy. We have no real local newspaper so the information gets out there only through places like this or Next Door or Facebook. We need the city to be accountable to be reporting on the crisis. We need all the residents to understand what the stakes are here. And once shelter in place is lifted there needs to be another Town Hall meeting where it is not just a show run by the Mayor but the interactive Town Hall we asked for the first time.
  3. I would encourage the Mayor to also create a monthly report or have a written report from the council. Or start having some online Town Hall meetings. I have, in the past, found council members open to a coffee meeting but since that is not plausible we need other ways for the community to interact with the council. 
  4. There needs to be a public process when the state auditor report comes out. This is now shown with a March 2021 estimated completion date. Based on the report I read from Compton (who were ranked slightly better than us) I expect a scathing report. In the past, when the state auditor brought up concerns there appeared to be a lot of minimizing or saying things were not as bad as the state said. I know we cannot go back in time and undo mistakes but I would love to see the city say mistakes were made and have a written plan to make sure such mistakes never happen again. There again should be a Town Hall (online if needed) to discuss the report. 
  5. There needs to be a 5 year budget available on the same page as mentioned above. This needs to be updated (the longer-term years) at least twice a year. 
  6. There needs to be a written plan as to how the city can pay off our 8.5 million dollar loan. We are not building any reserve until that is paid off. How long will it take? If we end the year at the number projected (which I doubt) we would have a 600k surplus. So if we are paying off the TRAN at that rate it would take 16 years to get rid of it. 
  7. There needs to be greater transparency on city salaries. Transparent CA is a great resource for looking at salaries and comparing them to other cities. However, what we have seen is that city staff are always saying they are underpaid or paid at the median. However, there has never been information shared on what cities they compare to. What we suspect is that they throw the entire county in there so it includes much larger cities like Richmond and much richer ones like Walnut Creek. I believe in reasonable compensation for staff but it needs to be centered on the reality of our financial crisis and the size and resources of our city.
  8. On the budget page we also should be able to see our city’s current bond rating. This is something that has dropped in the last few years and we are now at a huge disadvantage as far as being able to borrow money as a city. Either it will cost more or it will not happen as we are considered high-risk.

I found this report online. This talks about what transparency in a city looks like. Our neighbor San Francisco is doing an excellent job. Here are three guidelines for Transparency 2.0. You can see how our city is under the first category for most things and not the second. I understand many of these changes could take a while to make since it appears the city’s website is antiquated and would need work. However, if the city started with the basics as discussed above it would go a long way.

As many of us have seen with the Federal Government a lack of transparency leads to residents not trusting the government. I know many of my fellow advocates don’t trust our local government at all due to these issues. I hope the new Mayor and council will take steps to right the ship and change the embedded culture of we know all and the residents do not understand things.

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