Amanda Rice, Amanda Rice Cambria, Cambria, Cambria community services district, CCSD, Greg Sanders, Greg Sanders Cambria, Harry Farmer, Jerry Gruber Cambria, Jim Bahringer Cambria, local board meetings, Mike Thompson Cambria
Where do I begin…
I’ve taken a little more time than usual to capture my thoughts from the January CCSD meeting. I was so – I don’t know – confused, disheartened, bemused, all of the above when I left that I really had a hard time sorting through it all. It was such a strange and unsettling meeting that I actually went to the video tape and watched the whole thing again, wanting to be sure my initial reaction wasn’t due to the weather. It wasn’t; this meeting was a mess. A quick look at the agenda didn’t reveal anything controversial, and my sense was that it should be a pretty crisp meeting. Boy, was I wrong.
It doesn’t matter how fair and balanced I try to be with this one. I’m bummed that our most critical local government function went all Humpty Dumpty.
If you could see her through my eyes…” Cabaret
Let’s go to the video tape…
It might be a good idea for every Director, Staff member and public speaker to watch the entire 4 hours and thirty-nine minutes of this session so they can see what we the people see from the audience. It could offer some insights as to where behavioral changes might result in a better, more productive and positive collaborative enterprise.
So why the long face?
After thinking about it for a few days I’ve come to the belief that the behaviors exhibited in the meetings are more the result of issues that take place outside the Vet’s Hall, and build to a point that explode during a public meeting. Let’s start with Public Comment. It seems like it has become a game of dueling speakers. One gets up to speak negatively about the Board, the staff, and actions taken or not taken. The next speaker gets up to defend the board, the staff and actions taken or not taken. It’s like a slow game of tennis, but you get to sit down after each stroke.
It took me a while to figure out what one speaker was talking about. Survey equipment or surveillance equipment? A man with a dog? Two men in hazmat vests? Routine surveillance? What is this, an episode of the X Files? Photographic evidence showed surveyor’s levels, but no surveillance equipment. Or hazmat vests. Or a pickup truck. Or the man on the grassy knoll. Weird, but definitely the CSD’s fault. I’m still not sure what that was all about, or why it was an issue for the Board.
The interaction between the General Manager and Citizen Dickason was embarrassing. It went from Jerry Gruber to Jerry Springer, with both sides hitting the “I DON’T TRUST YOU!!!!! WELL I DON”T TRUST YOU EITHER!!!!! duet like veteran community theater actors.
With the elevation of Director Rice, I expected that there would be some differences in how the meetings would be run. Community members have expressed unhappiness over the length of the meetings. President Rice on several occasions stated that she would like to see them take less time. In her first full meeting with the gavel, she brought this baby in at a crisp four hours and thirty-nine minutes plus a few seconds. There was much shifting from side to side in the folding chairs. A good chunk of time was spent on President Rice going through her proposed goals and objectives for the coming year. Perhaps a review of the meeting recording could help her identify where clear thought and word economy might move things forward at a more reasonable pace.
There seemed to be a marked change on how dialog around public comment would be handled. The combination of Brown Act requirements and CCSD Bylaws set a general framework for allowable interaction. Directors have the option of giving short responses to speaker questions, and to ask short questions of the speaker for clarity or amplification. In past meetings these exchanges were few, and generally brief. In this session, debates seemed to break out all over the place, and, in several instances, Directors had terse exchanges with speakers, the audience and each other.
On multiple occasions the President made what I consider to be inappropriate or poorly thought out comments to the General Manager. Putting aside the battle between GM Gruber and Citizen Dickason, I was stunned by the way President Rice handled two issues.
I am of the mind that an employee, no matter how high they are in the organization, should not be dressed down, have their competence questioned or otherwise undermined in a public meeting by a Board Director or Officer.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” From The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Additionally, it is, in my view, inappropriate for a Director, let alone the Board President, to publicly accuse or imply that a business or organization doing work with the CCSD is behaving unethically. The comments by President Rice and Director Farmer in relation to the CDM Smith task orders were painful to hear, and based on my experience, reflected a real lack of understanding of how projects like the Sustainable Water Facility are managed. Consulting firms do not exist to do favors – heck, they would go out of business pretty quickly if they gave away their services. These services have real value, and require real work by real people with deep expertise to achieve complex objectives. The whole process of designing and executing a complex technical project demands clear requirements and deliverables; it also requires a robust change -management methodology, which covers expanded requirements, changes to project scope, additional services required (time, materials, expertise, support…). The methodology usually outlines what steps are to be taken to define the scope of any change, why the change is needed, who is responsible for the change, and what costs, if any, are projected to be required for the change. To have public officials imply that the consulting firm is acting in bad faith – “they know we have this money…” is not cool. Telling the General Manager that you think he did a poor job in negotiating the changes is at a minimum in poor taste and shows a real lack of leadership. Comparing the execution of the complex project to building a house, and telling the consultant tough – the rest of the work will be on their dime – may seem like a popular posture but is actually pretty ignorant.
What good is sitting alone in your room… Cabaret
General Manager Gruber expressed the desire to file requests for information from all of the agencies he believes are being hectored by members of the community. He has stated a belief that the impact to the staffs of these agencies, including the CSD, is significant in cost and operational effectiveness. He also stated that these constant filings (and other contacts) are seriously undermining the reputation and credibility of the District. He also believes some of these efforts are deliberate tactics by some groups to cause the SWF project to fail.
OK, if these assertions are true, I would support an effort to prove them. File the requests, collect the data, put together a process to translate these situations into real costs – with some reasonable calculations that would give the Board and the community a fair sense of the size and impact of these issues. If it turns out that they do, in fact, have a measurable impact on the District, it should be reported on, just like a failed piece of equipment, an infrastructure emergency, a vehicle replacement or any other expense or activity that impacts the District’s ability to do business.
And, if this all proves out, what action could or should be taken to address the specific identified problems? Will the individuals or groups found to drive these problems change their views and alter their behaviors? Based on initial reactions over the last few months that these charges have been surfacing, I doubt it. Will the information galvanize the community to apply their voices in an effort to persuade? Maybe, but to what effect? Will the Board find a way to better dialog and support their responsibilities, or will they as individuals continue to root with their core constituents? Based on this last meeting I have my doubts…
Come into the light
It is one thing for members of the community to make accusations of corruption, malfeasance, collusion, secret meetings and other nefarious goings on by Board members. It is quite another to hear sitting Board members make similar veiled accusations against their colleagues, the firms that the CSD does business with, and other businesses and concerns in town.
If someone has an accusation to make – make it. Publicly. With facts. Data. Names. Specific actions or events. Stop with the passive-aggressive, air-quote “many people are saying” type of nonsense. Put it out there and be ready to prove it. Save the suspicions, conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” for a different forum. Decide if you want to be a grown up who takes the facts as they come or a partisan who takes the facts that they favor.
Make the meeting rules clear and stick to them.
Demand respectful behavior from everyone.
Correct errors and misinformation in a crisp, factual way. When a speaker repeats false information – like how many hours CSD employees work – provide the data that clearly ends the debate.
Figure out a way to get the tough conversations done before or after a public meeting. Solve the conflicts before they hit the meeting floor.
It’s like raaa-aiiiiin on your meeting day…”
badly heard Alanis Morrisette lyric
Have a meter
One of the interesting things about attending the meeting twice was the opportunity to see it from different perspectives. I generally sit in the last row so I can see, hear and observe the whole room. Watching the replay gave me different views of the proceedings, and offered a few chuckles.
Watching the speakers queue up for their shot at the podium reminded me of shoppers looking for the fastest line at Costco.
Listening to a citizen address the Board and mention how a Director spent some time looking at his phone at the last meeting. Watching the same citizen sitting in the audience reading the newspaper as other matters were discussed.
Having a citizen proclaim that the General Manager should be fired for his exchange with a speaker, and then stating that his assertions of harrassment were based on hearsay. The citizen then continued with ” I heard it wasn’t even her… I heard it was someone else.” uh, using hearsay to attack hearsay? Have a meter!