Five before Midnight

This site is dedicated to the continuous oversight of the Riverside(CA)Police Department, which was formerly overseen by the state attorney general. This blog will hopefully play that role being free of City Hall's micromanagement.
"The horror of that moment," the King went on, "I shall never, never forget." "You will though," the Queen said, "if you don't make a memorandum of it." --Lewis Carroll


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Location: RiverCity, Inland Empire

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What's hiding behind the curtain of the consent calendar?

"The issue is: Do the citizens have confidence in (the internal affairs process)? If they don’t, they’re not going to use it. … Give the people an independent investigation, not by a police officer."

---Ronal C. Madnick, ACLU

“What I see is a sort of a cross-examination of the person that is complaining, going after them in terms of their prior conduct. And I see a soft examination of the police officer, often asking them leading questions: ‘You had to use force, right?’ That kind of thing.”

---Howard Friedman, Boston attorney, whose observations weren't much different than those raised by the Community Police Review Commission in Riverside according to several of its annual reports available here.

There's this interesting comment in Craigslist to restore the consent calendar back to city residents so that they can pull items from this list off for discussion at city council meetings. If you recall, members of the public were able to do this until July 12, 2005 when a motion proposed by former councilman, Dom Betro and seconded by current councilman, Steve Adams was made and passed 6-1 with the only opposing vote coming from former councilman, Art Gage. Two of these elected officials are no longer sitting on the dais, having lost their respective election bids in 2007.

The minute order for that date reflects that vote, for item #55 under the title, "City Council rules of procedures and orders of business resolution" if you want to read it.

Restoring the right to pull items would be a long over due action but it's also an unlikely one unfortunately with the current city government in place. It's true that public expression and the release of public information from City Hall and its various departments has gotten more restricted in the past several years and the city council has taken great pains to keep direct employees on staff whose antipathy towards public expression and transparency is fairly equal to those individuals who give them their marching orders. The one thing that's transparent in government is that people don't seem to want it to be transparent.

There was no lack of leadership on the dais three years ago to pass this ban on city residents from pulling the items off of the agenda and so it passed with people speaking both in favor and against it. In fact, some of Betro's supporters actually supported what was going on that day and certainly didn't oppose the agenda item which approved other restrictions on public input as well. Several of them said how sick and tired they were of people going up to the podium and complaining and I suppose this was considered the appropriate response to that, but that's not the case if you hope to see an open and transparent government that is accountable to all of its constituents not just the ones with development firms and a lot of money.

And interestingly enough, some of the people who voted to pass this motion had wrapped themselves all around the Bill of Rights only weeks before protesting that they would never disenfranchise the public by restricting their ability to redress their government at its weekly meetings. But actions after all, speak louder than words and most often especially in government, they speak the truth and their words have such a low sales tag attached to them.

There's currently a lack of leadership coming from the dais on actions of openness and transparency from city government and plenty of leadership in the other direction. The city council's actions including some of their votes reflect that unfortunate trend in government.

But this is a good comment.


Since the three newbies on the council have had a year to get their feet wet, 2009 would be a good time for them to make good on their promise to make City Hall more transparent by restoring the right of the citizens to pull items off of the consent calendar for discussion. For the past 3-plus years, the City has been engaged in an experiment of limiting discussion and dissent, and it hasn't worked. Has the rancor died down? Is the level of trust any higher? The answer to both of those questions is a resounding "no."

In fact, the council has been using the gag rule to load up the consent calendar with most of the policy and spending decisions, and reserving the discussion calendar for program updates and "receive and file" motions. One could argue that this is agenda abuse. Ward One councilman Gardner even campaigned on pulling items off the consent calendar that require $1 million in spending, but I haven't seen him do it. On one occasion he did comment on those expenses, but that falls well short of his campaign promise.

But Gardner is but one on the dais, and it will take 4 votes to change the rules. MacArthur, Hart, and Melendrez seem like the likeliest allies. Bailey is an enigma, but could be convinced. Adams is a definite no, but Schiavone, up for re-election, just might support such a change. So there is the potential for 5, maybe 6 votes on the council to make the change.

Now the bad news: the request for such a motion would likely have to come out of the Governmental Affairs committee: Adams (chair), Schiavone, Bailey. Those are the three likeliest "no" votes on the council, but Schiavone and Bailey might be persuadable.

Would restoring this right make for longer meetings? Certainly. Will it restore some trust? Possibly. Who knows, you might even have more people show up to voice their support for consent calendar items if they know they can speak to it. One thing it would do, however, is end the current agenda item shell game, because there would no longer be anywhere for the items to hide.

As part of the bargain, Councilmembers also need to show some restraint during and after the public comment period by not engaging from the dais. They should be encouraged to talk to constituents after the meeting or direct them to staff, but too many times a councilmember will take potshots from the dais. That's bad form, and below our expectations for our electeds. Our City is better than that, so act accordingly.

Nobody can guarantee that changing the rules back will make everything better. Most likely it will make things worse to some people, and better to others. Continuing in the same manner, however, is a sure ticket to more of the same, and is sure to engender more distrust. The meetings, as currently arranged, do their level best to discourage public interest and participation, and nobody should be in favor of that.

Well, nobody off of the dais anyway. There's plenty of reasons if you're on the dais to not support public participation and transparency in government but those reasons are not aligned with the ideals of living in a democratic republic of directly elected representation. They are more aligned with self-interest.

This individual is right in his observations of what truly is "agenda abuse" in that the consent calendar is turning into a dumping ground for high-ticket items including during the current economic crisis when more city residents are paying closer attention to exactly how their dollars are being spent. It's amazing how one city council meeting agenda can reveal just how much money passes through the consent calendar, and this commenter is right, in that the only items which really find themselves on the discussion calendar are "receive and file" items or public reports which elicit little in the way of discussion from the dais. And given how low the standard for acceptable conduct on the dais has become from those who engage in "potshot" making as this commenter mentioned and those who watch silently from the sidelines, it's clear that the dynamic of city council meetings is on quite a few people's minds.

Overcrowding the consent calendar makes it easy to hide items which really need to be discussed openly from accountability, which is ripe for abuse and serious problems in city government if in a wrong hands.

All you have to do is look what's happened in other cities and counties across the country where there's been scandals and incidents which breach the trust between residents and their elected government to know that all you have to do in this case is sit back and watch it unfold. And know that it's just as likely or not that Riverside itself could see similar problems in future years. If that's what happens, then it's truly unfortunate.

This commenter's correct in that such a proposal to restore the consent calendar likely wouldn't be sent to the Governmental Affairs Committee (unless of course it could be restricted further) and it's just as unlikely that any of its current three members would support it. Councilman Rusty Bailey's an enigma on some issues but not on transparency. His actions with the Community Police Review Commission show that transparency is not one of his stronger points and unless Chair Frank Schiavone unveils a kinder, gentler, opener side of himself as part of some sort of interesting if predictable campaign strategy, it would die in committee if it even got that far. Issues of transparency have been to Governmental Affairs before, but they don't come out of that committee looking anything but more opaque on view. Don't be surprised if a recommendation came out of that committee to bar people from speaking more than one minute on discussion calendar items.

So who would champion this form of transparency? Some people point to Ward Two Councilman Andrew Melendrez but even though he's probably the most popular member of the city council, he's also the least likely to make waves. Witness his quick deference as chair of the Public Safety Committee on the issue of the CPRC going there for discussion rather than to Governmental Affairs where it will be parsed down further in its road to becoming meaningless. Never mind that civilian review has been sent for policy review to that committee since at least the 1980s, he couldn't have backed down more quickly. Judging by the numbers of CPRC supporters in Ward Two, this could be an issue that he has to address during his reelection campaign.

Chris MacArthur is another possibility but it's not likely because he doesn't belong to any committee that could review the city council "conduct" code. Councilwoman Nancy Hart is pretty much a "me too" who will go along with the majority vote and this will be more apparent during her bid to stay on the city council next year. After all, earlier this year she signed onto an Op-Ed piece about the CPRC which she may have not even read carefully beforehand.

Councilman Steve Adams is the least likely and if he were smart, it would be the opposite because his behavior on the dais including against members of his own ward nearly cost him his reelection bid in 2007. But he didn't learn from his near mistakes and in fact, has rubber stamped his role as the "silver tongued" member of the dais so far during his term. Unfortunately, it's almost a given that Adams can be counted upon to make a comment that will embarrass others sitting next to him.

Here are some "sunshine" Web sites for local government accountability. They provide good resources including legal citations, articles on the transparency (or not) of local government, audits and reports of meetings and public agencies and even templates to help you write letters including requesting information under the California Public Records Act.

Cal Aware

California First Amendment Coalition

It's official. One of Hemet's fire stations has closed.

(excerpt, Press Enterprise)

City fire officials say that despite the closure Monday of the fire station, at 120 N. Hemet St., firefighters would do their best to respond to the surrounding area.

Some residents are lamenting the fire station's closure.

"It's probably not a good idea, but the city's in a bad situation," said William Adams, 50, who lives close to the shuttered station. He said he holds the city leadership responsible for not being careful with spending and allowing Hemet to fall into financial crisis.

"It's unfortunate that (the response times) will take longer, but what can you do?" he said.

The City Council recently approved making cuts and laying off personnel to deal with a projected budget imbalance of about $6 million in the 2009-10 fiscal year because of declining revenue from sales taxes, property taxes and developer fees.

About 60 more layoffs planned in Orange County's workforce.

(excerpt, Los Angeles Times)

Word of the cutbacks came the same day that 1,000 angry workers stormed the Orange County Hall of Administration to protest previously announced plans to lay off 210 social services employees.

The social services cuts stem from a steep reduction in state funding that county officials said left them with no option but to eliminate jobs. In addition to the layoffs, the county has disclosed plans to require 4,000 social services employees to take two weeks off without pay next year.

Chanting "Chop at the top!" members of the Orange County Employees Assn. and other government unions filled the fifth-floor lobby outside the offices of the Board of Supervisors in Santa Ana and implored them to search for alternatives to layoffs.

A Melbourne, Florida police officer faces job termination in connection with sexual misconduct.

(excerpt, Click Orlando)

Melbourne police Officer Christopher Buccelli, a three-year veteran of the department, is still on the payroll but has until Dec. 30 to explain to the police chief why he should not be fired, according to Melbourne Police Department spokesman Cmdr. Ron Bell.

The latest internal investigation looked into allegations that Bucelli violated a no-contact order and may have harassed a prostitute and her boyfriend who spoke to investigators about the earlier incidents, Local 6 News partner Florida Today reported.

"He was served a notice of suspension prior to dismissal," Bell said.

That means Buccelli -- as part of department policy -- will have to appeal the finding within seven days and explain at a hearing why he should not be released from duty as a police officer, Bell said.

"The officer will have until 5 p.m. on the 30th to show cause as to why he should not be dismissed," Bell said.

The Worcester Telegram and Gazette did an indepth investigation into how the police department there handled citizen complaints. And guess what it found. It discovered that it had questions about the fairness and thoroughness of the investigative process, which isn't surprising given that many people across the same country have asked the same questions about that process in general and how it's done in their city or county in particular.


While some observers question why Officer Mark A. Rojas was allowed to continue policing city streets as he accumulated an internal affairs file spanning more than a thousand pages, Chief Gary J. Gemme characterized the bulging file as a testament to the diligence with which his department investigates its own.

“I think it speaks to the thoroughness of the investigations by the Bureau of Professional Services. I think people should walk away with a knowledge of the thoroughness of these cases,” Chief Gemme said.

But others question how seriously police take internal affairs investigations.

In interviews, several people who have lodged complaints against Officer Rojas, 35, during his 12 years on the force derided the probes as half-hearted exercises in which the officer repeatedly was given the benefit of the doubt and investigators made little effort to verify claims of misconduct.

“In general, it’s rare that you’ll see internal affairs investigate complaints of police misconduct the same way they would investigate a crime, applying the same skills and finding and interviewing witnesses,” said Howard Friedman, a Boston lawyer who has specialized in police misconduct cases for 25 years.

None of this is surprising news to many people who believe that self-investigation of police misconduct is at best very difficult to do and at most, impossible to do. Gemme is clearly the latter based on how proud he is of creating a huge investigative file for Rojas, yet didn't address how an officer could have such a thick file and still patrol the streets. But similar arguments have been used regarding several officers in Riverside who have accumulated a large number of complaints and a large number of exonerated or unfounded filings. Including one who was the subject of comments allegedly made by now-retired Judge Steve Cunnison that in a criminal case involving an arrest by this officer tried in his courtroom, he felt that it was possible that the officer used excessive force in the arrest. Ironically, the lawyer who related this chain of events now works for one of the top police defense firms in the southern part of the state.

The jury acquitted the woman on trial of two of the more serious misdemeanor charges of assault and battery on a peace officer and convicted her on obstruction. She was sentenced to time serviced which was several days in jail after her arrest and summary probation. The officer has accumulated more complaints since that arrest including as recently as a month ago.

More database snooping by officers in Memphis, Tennessee.To add to the snooping that's been going on already.

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