Friday, June 16, 2006 | When City Councilman Brian Maienschein began boycotting the council’s closed-door meetings last fall, he didn’t tell anybody. He just stopped showing up.
His colleagues Councilwomen Donna Frye and Toni Atkins launched a high-profile boycott of the meetings in 2004, and a host of new policies reforming the shut-door meetings resulted.
The two officials were outspoken in their disapproval of discussing and acting on business that they argued should be public. As a result, the public has been granted a greater idea of what occurs behind closed doors.
But Maienschein – hardly the rebel type – has taken his stand silently.
Now the councilman, who has stayed away from the limelight and the press since the city’s stresses became regular front-page news, quietly monitors the agendas. In a recent interview, he said he might attend a meeting if it concerns an issue in his northern, suburban district or a “significant city issue.” Those include pension litigation or homeland security.
Other than those exceptions, the Republican councilman said he just won’t go. The reason: he doesn’t trust the information dispersed by city staff.
“I’m not picking on one person or group, but I’ve felt that since I’ve been on council I’ve not been given good information in closed session,” Maienschein said. “Frankly, I’m fed up.”
Attendance records from the 35 closed session meetings that were held in 2005 show that Maienschein was absent from all or part of 13 hearings. The City Attorney’s Office has not yet made public the records from 2006. But the councilman said his boycott continues – however selective it is.
The City Council is allowed by state law to hold some hearings behind closed doors, out of the public eye. The secret session allow the council to meet with legal counsel regarding sensitive business, such as existing and anticipated legal actions, labor negotiations and real estate transactions. And with the city locked in financial and legal troubles – including numerous lawsuits and federal investigations – closed session dockets are generally packed with plenty of important affairs.
Council President Scott Peters downplayed Maienschein’s absences, noting that he had attended recent closed session hearings. Still, he said, attending the meetings were part of Maienschien’s job.
“I don’t think it’s right. Everyone should go,” Peters said.
Without pointing to specific instances, Maienschein said he felt left in the dark about certain issues – the pension and labor issues at the heart of today’s problems, for example – since taking office.
“My overall feeling is that I don’t intend to go to closed session unless it’s an unusual situation,” he said.
Maienschein’s boycott comes in the wake of a tumultuous period at City Hall that witnessed several resignations, indictments and even convictions of sitting councilmen over the past three years. Some of the early rumblings of scandal led to a backlash movement that included the Frye-Atkins boycott in 2004, the rise of “transparency” as a buzzword, and even the propulsion of Frye’s write-in candidacy for mayor.
With many of the city’s top managers and elected officials replaced in the past year, the controversy has died down significantly. Elected officials and the city’s voters passed a slew of measures that allows for more transparency of the city’s official business.
After Frye’s boycott, the council began including paragraph-long description on its agenda’s of what items will be discussed behind closed doors, and members of the public gained the ability to speak to the council on the items. A transcription of the private meeting is now taken, although it is protected under attorney-client confidentiality, and council votes taken in closed session are reported out to the public. It has become easier for community members to request city documents.
However, the reforms have not quelled Maienschein’s concerns. He has often hinted that he is suspicious of the way city staff dispenses information to the elected decision-makers, and he cited that distrust last summer when he voted to not pay the legal bills for city employees who were named as defendants in City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s pension lawsuits.
For Maienschein, much of the city’s legal and financial problems stem from staff work – and the resulting council decisions based on that work – that has resulted in numerous investigations and a suspended credit rating.
Local and federal prosecutors are probing the city for its past pension dealings and financial disclosure practices. Pension deals the city and its retirement board struck in 2002 have generated criminal charges against former city and pension officials.
The errors and omissions that were found on the city’s financial disclosures have attracted the interest of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who are probing for possible securities fraud, and Wall Street, who has shunned the city from borrowing money on the public market until the government has its books certified.
The council’s closed-session decision to shelve a study that found residential users of the city’s sewer system subsidized large industrial users has also attracted the attention of prosecutors.
Maienschein said he could not recall what caused him to start shrugging off the private meetings, but said his regular absences began last fall as the result of his pent-up irritation that information that he felt should be public was kept confidential.
“It was the culmination of everything, where I’ve just had enough,” he said. “I have repeatedly been given bad information.”
He said his receipt of bad advice isn’t limited to only closed session meetings. But, he said, at least there is an accessible record for receiving that information when it is provided at an open meeting.
“My overall feeling is that these matters need to be heard in open session, that anybody that is making presentation, whatever they say, is open to public.” Maienschein said. “But at least (at a public meeting) it’s in full view.”
Maienschein said the reason he could not give more specific examples was part of the problem about closed session meetings: Revealing discussion that occurs in closed session can result in a misdemeanor. He said it’s confusing to keep track about what was said in those meetings and to further determine which parts of those discussions are sensitive.
Frye and Atkins, whose boycott two years ago triggered reform, said they believe the closed session process has improved significantly.
“I don’t think it’s completely perfect, but any specific allegations of the past have been corrected,” Frye said.
Atkins said she has also seen “big improvements since our boycott,” but said there was still room for improvement.
“There are times when we don’t get information we need until we walk into the room,” Atkins said.
Aguirre, who is in charge of scheduling what legal cases are discussed in closed session, declined to comment for this story.
Mayor Jerry Sanders, who is allowed under the City Charter to attend the private sessions but is not afforded a vote, said he believes that the use of closed session has been appropriate.
“Nobody has expressed any concerns about closed session to me,” he said.
The city officials who were interviewed for this story said it is important to meet privately to protect the city’s interests. For example, in labor negotiations, the city’s bargaining strategy should not be divulged when employee unions’ are able to keep their cards close to their chest. The same arguments apply for litigation and real estate transactions, they said.
“There are certain things that should be not be discussed publicly because it helps the other side,” Frye said.
Maienschein said he understood the responsibilities of a council member, and argued that he fulfilled them by voting at public meetings – where closed session decisions are often finalized.
“The decisions are made in open session. The discussion and information is sometimes given in closed session,” he said. “By attending open session, I’m fulfilling my duties to make the decisions.”
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