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

Monday, September 14, 2009

Is the Human Resources Board being 'censored' by City Hall?

The Human Resources Board meeting was a really happening event this month and this usually nine-member board meets monthly during the first Monday at 4pm at City Hall, usually in the Fifth Floor conference room.

No Photos allowed at a public city meeting?

Attempts to photograph this meeting were initially blocked by the head of the Human Resources Department Rhonda Strout who said that permission had to be gained from the board and even mentioned something about needing to get a written release. When the board members were asked permission, they gave it and then Strout said to wait until the entire board was there. It makes one wonder, who runs the HR Board meeting, the HR department or the board chair who had agreed to allow photos to be taken at the meeting. Chair Erin House and other board members had no problems being photographed. It's a city board and commission that was created by a publicly elected body, is subjected to the Brown Act and takes place in a public building paid for through revenues generated at some point largely by city residents for its operations and staffing. The cookies and bottled water that the board members enjoy at their meetings are paid for by those same revenues.

So to say that board or commission members or elected officials at public meetings inside public buildings have to give their permission to be photographed is ridiculous and it can be seen as an attempted act of censorship at a board or commission meeting by the city, only it's not likely that the city instituted any such directive to its employees because no doubt, it's too astute to try to censor a meeting that takes place involving public business in a public forum so it was probably a statement made by a department head who hadn't been instructed on meetings as public forums rather than just places where the city conducts business. Perhaps it's more usual for many of these people to conduct even the public portions of their business behind closed doors. But hopefully that's a situation the city can remedy in the future.

But telling people they can't take visual depictions of public meetings is a no-no. In fact, when a former city council member tried to object to a city resident filming a Governmental Affairs Committee meeting without asking for "permission", the elected official was advised not to do so by City Attorney Gregory Priamos and rightly so.

The board members who had no issue with photos being taken are attending meetings, not participating in television commercials and there are city residents who like having some idea who's serving on the boards and commissions, where they meet and what they do because when allowed to do their jobs, many do important work. Too often, the city's boards and commissions don't really have a face on them because most people can't attend the meetings (especially those in the mornings and afternoons) of these vital bodies which were created to allow city residents to have a voice and participate in their city government.

The employees are paid to do outreach at board and commission meetings, they make pretty handsome six-figure salaries and these employees allegedly received pay raises last year as well while most other city employees had to give up 2% raises without benefit of incrementing their salaries first. As someone whose picture has been featured in city-issued brochures, videos and reports, I don't recall ever being asked to sign a release form.

Since the commissioners gave their permission but the city department heads didn't want to be photographed at a public meeting, there will only be pictures of the board members. When the city employees asked where the photos would be used, they were provided with a URL to this blog which admittedly didn't seem to thrill them.

But inquiries on this issue have been forwarded to CalAware, the California First Amendment Coalition and the ACLU for further information if the situation should arise again.

[Agenda from the Human Resources Board meeting. The keynote speaker didn't show but there were still plenty of fireworks at this monthly event.]

What: Human Resources Board meeting'

Where: Fifth Floor conference room, City Hall, Riverside

When: Monday, Sept. 14 at 4pm.

Keynote speaker, a no show

The Human Resources Board held its monthly meeting expecting to receive a presentation on the police department from Chief Russ Leach but he was a no show so it had to make do with discussing other items on the agenda.

It's not clear why Leach didn't appear before the board at its afternoon meeting given that his secretary had told the board that he would be at the meeting. But Chair Erin House said that if the chief didn't show up, he was going to call up his secretary and ask why.

Still, the meeting went on without its keynote speaker who was to present on the retention of male versus female officers in the department. Admittedly, not one of the police department's favorite topics but it would have been an interesting presentation and one that the Board had been waiting for after months of excuses from the City Attorney's office against even the discussion of general statistical information and stalling by the department or whoever is in control of it at the time.

The Human Resources Board had plenty of other issues to discuss and unlike its micromanaged cousin, the Community Police Review Commission, its members seem willing to discuss them.

[Human Resource Board members Woodie Rucker-Hughes (l) and Vice-Chair Ellie Bennett enter into the debate of whether or not the board has a tense relationship with City Hall. I'm clearly no Ansel Adams or Dorothy Lange so is it really worth trying to block photos from being taken at public meetings at City Hall? ]

"We think he's wrong."

First the board had to make quorum which took about 20 minutes and the board held it for nearly an hour. Since one member had to leave, the Board was forced to postpone several items including the discussion of EEO statistics until next month. But it still discussed quite a bit of business most notably the ongoing and completely ridiculous situation mentioned in prior blog postings about the Board's attempts to obtain basic statistical information on how many lawsuits have been filed by city employees in federal or state court. And who forbade them from receiving this basic statistical information that would be based entirely on public court records, why the City Attorney's office of course. Only since that office doesn't actually send any of its staff members to attend the H.R. Board meetings, it essentially denies requests for public information through the department heads who do attend the meetings.

The board discussed the response or rather lack of response that it received from its letter sent to the city council asking for clarification of City Attorney Gregory Priamos assertion made through Strout that when the board asked for statistical information on lawsuits filed by city employees, it was operating outside of its purview. Only one response came from Riverside's governing body in response to the letter and that was a phone call from the office of Mayor Ron Loveridge which made an "inquiry" but not much else about the letter. House told the board members that he had called his council member, Nancy Hart but that it seemed that she had to be brought up to speed on the issue before responding to it.

Hart's representative didn't even seem to be aware a letter had been sent to Hart or anyone on the city council.

"You sent a letter to council," that person allegedly asked and then said he or she had never seen any such letter.

The board members then discussed whether or not to send a second letter and if that one failed to generate a response, then they would consider addressing the city council at one of its weekly evening meetings. Some board members wanted a second letter sent. Others questioned whether it would be more likely to generate a response than the first letter.

"If not," House said, "what?"

Other members said the letter had to be sent because they disagreed with the city attorney's office which incidentally happens to deliver its legal opinions on issues using other department heads including those from the Human Resources Department as its conduits.

"We disagree with the city attorney," one member said, "We think he's wrong."

Others including Woodie Rucker-Hughes, chair of Riverside's chapter of the NAACP said they wanted to know what the appropriate procedure for asking for assistance from the city council.

"We're not trying to be argumentative," Rucker-Hughes said, "We just want to know how to proceed."

Vice-Chair Ellie Bennett who works for Riverside County agreed with sending another letter. Then she per usual had some very pointed words but then she's a member of the board who speaks her mind which is actually quite refreshing in comparison to attending CPRC meetings where the majority of its members seem to try to outdo each other as rubber stamps for City Hall.

"The letter should not have been ignored," she said.

But Bennett in her comments went even further than that as she talked about the process of communication for members of the board to the city government on a larger scale.

"It seems like every step we are taking, there is a censorship," Bennett said, "There is a great deal of mistrust between the city administration and the board."

It's hard not to agree with the "censorship" claim having seen it at work at this meeting before it even got started. But what Bennett means is that she and other members have felt that each and every attempt they have made simply to get access to public information is being thwarted indirectly by two direct city employees working for the city council (which the H.R. Board answers to) which are the city manager and the city attorney. The latest vocabulary word that's in vogue with City Hall these days when it comes to the city's boards and commissions appears to be "purview", used in the context that just about every bit of business that a board and commission tries to perform in accordance with charter and/or municipal ordinance that makes the city uncomfortable is suddenly outside that purview.

Bennett had only gotten started and then asked why the city appeared to be afraid of the board's work. House appeared to agree with her observation.

"I feel constricted," he said.

He wasn't the only one. One other board member had this to say.

"The Council and Legal is risk managing us out of business."

And that brings up the critical issue that pairs the H.R. Board up with its spayed and neutered counterpart, the CPRC which is whether or not the city believes rightly or wrongly that the work done by these bodies increases the city's risk of civil liability. After all, both the H.R. Board and the CPRC might be perceived as increasing the city's chances of getting sued on labor dispute issues or wrongful death cases if the respective board or commission doesn't come out with the decision or a finding that favors the city's risk management division. That's one major reason why the city manager and city attorney's offices are winnowing down the charter powers of the CPRC while the city council watches in silence or even participates as the majority of it did through a city council vote that actually wrestled away from one of the city's boards and commissions the right to implement its own policies and procedures. The issue in that case was the filing of wrongful death cases in four officer-involved deaths since 2004, all of which have settled for amounts between $75,000-800,000.

The H.R. Board can be viewed as being in the same position if the city's risk management division believes that any actions or discussions by this board involving the city's work force even at the policy level could lead to more lawsuits or grievances being filed against city management. Even the collection of statistical information on the city's labor issues including the lawsuits filed by city employees can be viewed as being potentially risky to the city. After all, the city council through its vote apparently stripped the Board's investigative powers in 2005 by removing language from the municipal ordinance. Unlike the CPRC, the investigative powers of the H.R. Board aren't cemented in the city's charter. Not that doing so through popular vote was enough to prevent the CPRC from essentially losing its ability to exercise its power of investigation involving officer-involved deaths through a city council vote earlier this year. And if you don't think that's the case, just ask the CPRC if it's initiated investigations yet in two officer-involved deaths that hit their first year anniversaries earlier this month.

The answer is, of course not.

It's becoming clear that members of the H.R. Board are realizing the relationship between how they do business and the city's perception of its civil liability. Much more clearly than their counterparts on the CPRC.

But if discussing the issue of failing to get an adequate response from the body which oversees the H.R. Board was interesting, the discussion of the layoffs was much more so. Bennett, who works for Riverside County began asking questions about whether or not the city management including department heads had instituted furloughs for city employees.

Strout said there were no mandatory ones, but they were heavily promoting voluntary furloughs as this positive thing that allowed employees more time with their families even though they were making less money to support them. Bennett asked a question that it's amazing that it wasn't asked before and that was why the city was laying people off rather than resorting to the use of furloughs first. She said that the vast majority of Riverside County including management and executive level employees were doing furloughs so that the entire workforce could share the sacrifice of budget cuts and that had actually improved morality with the labor unions. She said it made no sense to take the most extreme action first of laying off employees rather than trying out furloughs and that furloughs would be significant if they even saved 12 city jobs.

In response, Strout started doing what she's allegedly been doing when she's met with full-time city employees that have been laid off and that's telling them it's been the SEIU General Unit's fault. A woman posting anonymously at the Press Enterprise Web site who said she was the fiancee of a laid off Public Works employee said that her fiance had been told by Strout that if it weren't for the SEIU voting for the 2% increase that he would still be employed. At the meeting, Strout said that the SEIU had voted to take the increase even knowing its impact on the workforce but that she hoped the city would reopen talks with the union, a comment echoed by Steven Espinoza at the Board meeting.

Woodie Rucker-Hughes said that the SEIU members were concerned about job security and said that they were willing to take the 2% cut if they were able to get it returned during better economic times. The city essentially told them, they couldn't promise that. Most of the debate including in the media after the city manager's office allegedly took its case to the Press Enterprise has focused on the SEIU and very little on answering the questions about whether or not raises were given to management and executive employees last year even when the city knew that it was facing an even larger budget shortfall than initially expected.

Bennett said that management and executive employees in Riverside County took the furloughs and the actions that penalized the employees first, before making decisions that exacted the same consequences out of the other employees including members of the SEIU and the other labor associations and unions.

"We went first," she said.

She then turned around and asked an interesting question to the department heads that attended the meeting.

"Who has given up 5% of their pay to help other employees," Bennett said.

And what was their response?

**Crickets chirping**

Meaning that they didn't have much to say about what sacrifices they had made before they had to lay off employees. And the city really needs to speak up and say something because much of the issues involving the controversy over the 2% raise developed after the SEIU and other labor unions discovered that apparently raises were given out last year to higher-level employees. Is it the case that employees who head city departments were given raises last year, a development which may have led to the push to publish a list of maximum ceiling raises for about 40 management and executive level employees last December? And when is the city going to explain why it was "certifying" (i.e. increasing) the maximum ceiling raises for these employees from 2% to over 20% with a lot of them falling between 12-15% raises in the first place, right at the point in the past fiscal year when they were adding $14 million more dollars to the total estimation of lost revenue?

Citywide, employees were not given 2% raises except for the SEIU and the HR representatives implied other labor unions, yet did some employees get hefty raises before they gave up their 2% raises? What measures have department heads taken involving their own salaries even as they've witnessed or even laid off employees in their own departments?

Why were layoffs considered before furloughs and what was the balance involving sacrifices made by the general work force in comparison to those made by the city's management and department heads? Because Bennett seemed to believe that the city had it backwards, by laying off employees first, when she said that she considered that the absolute last resort after other actions had been taken and by expecting lower-level employees to make all the sacrifices rather than having the management and executive employees make those sacrifices first to set an example for the rest of the employment ranks when they are asked or expected to do the same thing.

It doesn't make much sense to waggle fingers at unions because they didn't make sacrifices unless the department heads that are doing the finger waggling most likely because they are told to do so by their bosses have made similar sacrifices themselves and if they actually did get raises while others were expected to keep their salaries at a status quo, then what kind of message does that send?

When the library and museum laid off employees recently and cut back their hours, what happened to the salaries of their department heads?

When the police chief signed a new five-year contract last year, did his salary go up or remain the same while salaries were frozen and merit pay stopped within his own agency?

When the public works employees were laid off several months ago, did the public works department head get a pay raise or did her salary remain at the status quo in 2008 or 2009?

And what Human Resources Department management employees? Did they get raises last year even as their budgets received some of the severest cuts?

And what of employees in management positions who don't actually manage any employees? Why are they called management employees?

There needs to be much more public disclosure at what's going on at the management and executive levels involving salaries going up or down or staying in between before anyone points any fingers at anyone else, because Bennett is correct, the buck stops there and in Riverside city, it's not clear it even gets there.

The city council is discussing the ethics code and complaint process at its weekly meeting held Tuesday, Sept. 15 at 6:30 p.m.

(excerpt, Press Enterprise)

The council will consider five recommended changes. Two key items are a 90-day deadline for the city to respond in writing to complaints -- no deadline now exists -- and removal of a provision that the code applies to officials only "acting in their official capacities and in the discharge of their duties."

That last suggestion has the full support of activist Kevin Dawson. He filed a complaint in 2007 against then-Councilman Dom Betro over a comment Dawson considered threatening, but the complaint was dismissed without a formal review after the city attorney determined that Betro was not acting as a councilman during the incident.

"That provision should never have been in there," Dawson said in a phone interview Monday.

Jennifer Vaughn-Blakely, who lobbied for the creation of an ethics code and headed the citizens committee that wrote it, said she supports the proposed changes but would like to see the code strengthened even further, and Dawson agreed.

Both Vaughn-Blakely and Dawson said they believe the council should designate an independent panel to hear ethics complaints instead of the mayor's nominating and screening committee, which now addresses them. That idea was discussed at a Sept. 2 council subcommittee meeting, but no recommendation was made.

"We feel that to have an outside body review complaints will definitely help to increase and maintain public trust and transparency," Vaughn-Blakely said.

The report for this agenda item is available here.

Correction: In regards to the boat race event planned for Fairmount Park for October, I received an email from Councilman Mike Gardner that they are indeed racing sailboats around Lake Evans. The class of boat, the Sabot which has an eight-foot sideboard and they are currently housed in a new building.

That should be interesting and hopefully, there will be a full field of competitors from the city council but don't forget those life jackets because sailing can be pretty rough and watch your heads when you turn about.

The Riverside County Superior Courts will be closed on Wednesday Sept. 16 as part of the furlough program which impacts courts state-wide and will lead to the court facilities being closed on the third Wednesday of each month.

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