Note: This is the column that got me fired as an irregular columnist for a local newspaper, before it even ran.
What could be better than spending three hours on Tuesday night at a City of Cotati Strategic Planning Study Session? Spending two hours. Actually, 10 minutes would have been even better, because that was the amount of time that involved either strategies, or the study thereof.
On this particular evening, there were 11 people from city government, and three citizens in the peanut gallery. The 11 included the mayor, vice mayor, three councilmembers, the city manager, assistant city manager, the police chief, economic development director, administrative services director, and director of public works.
The city staffers were dressed as if they had just come from church. The mayor and council favored jeans, t-shirts, and sweats.
The six city staffers have a combined salary/benefit package that totals $1,093,100. Not bad for being responsible for a city of 6,800 and having every Friday off. City Manager Dianne Thompson said it was “amazing how much they got done last year”, especially considering how understaffed they were. She then described their seven greatest hits, which included 1. Budget stabilization. 2. Economic development. 3. The General Plan update. 4. The Old Redwood Highway project. 5. The Falletti Ranch, where she admitted no progress was made. 6. The Intermodal facility by the SMART track. 7. Having a few meetings about emergency preparedness.
The last two might be actual accomplishments, but here’s a closer look at the first five:
1. The city’s notion of budget stabilization revolves around raising tax rates instead of encouraging business growth. So they threatened disincorporation, and conned voters into approving an unnecessary sales tax increase. 2. What economic development? Because of the roundabout plan, Oliver’s cancelled an $18 million development. At least two other businesses plan to leave town shortly. Stay tuned. 3. The General Plan update involved paying outside consultants $500,000 over two years. 4. The Old Redwood Highway project was one of the biggest defeats the city council and staff suffered in years, when voters said a loud no to roundabouts. 5. I drove by Falletti Ranch on the way to the meeting. In 2008, the Sonoma County Open Space District spent $3,135,000, including $165,000 from Cotati, to turn this property into a farming museum. In 2013, the weeds on the property are almost three feet tall.
For the next 90 minutes, each department head went into a detailed rundown of their accomplishments. At 9:00, they took a short break, after which things became even more ironic. This was going to be the strategic part of the meeting, where they wouldn’t “get down in the weeds with numbers,” but take “a high-level, 30,000-foot view” of the upcoming budget year. This discussion was supposed to be all about “setting priorities.”
The city’s priorities were grouped into four categories: Economic Development, Core Services, like police, streets, and water. Improve Infrastructure, including their computer system, and Promote Cotati. One council member said each category should have three top priorities that absolutely had to be done, with the rest being “nice if we could.” Another said that Core Services shouldn’t even be priorities, because they were all necessary functions. A third council member asked how much time of every staffer’s day was taken up with basic Core Services, and how much time was left over for “priorities.” After 15 minutes of discussion, the council decided that adding up the hours on employee timesheets was too hard to do.
Finally, the city manager resolved the priority-setting befuddlement by telling the council, “You don’t really have to set priorities tonight.”
Next came a discussion of how city staff is handling the open vacancies for an assistant planner and an accountant. To fill the void left by the departure of a $93,000 assistant planner, the $137,000 community development director is covering that job, and outsourcing the job she was hired for to a freelance planner. This is kind of like a restaurant using their head chef as a waiter, and ordering the food they serve from a different restaurant.
One council member asked the city manager how she is holding up under the pressure of being understaffed. Another compared it to a car being in stuck in third gear with the gas pedal to the floor. Other council members jumped on this bandwagon and expressed concerns about “burnout”, “overload”, and “sustainability.”
About 10 o’clock, the meeting ended. No numbers were discussed. No priorities were set. No strategies were strategized. Ultimately, it devolved into a pity party, with concerned council members wondering how much longer their 1.093 million dollars worth of department heads could “keep it up.
Frankly, I was wondering the same thing.