City to bundle Charter issues for ballot consideration

By JONATHAN WHITAKER
September 5, 2019

Merced leaders on Tuesday night accepted a number of proposed amendments to the City Charter — the municipality’s governing document — and directed staff to come up with a single ballot question for voters to decide on in the March primary election.

Members of the City Council voted 5-2 to move forward with the ballot strategy based on all the changes and conclusions produced by the Citizens Advisory Charter Review Committee during meetings over the summer. Councilmen Anthony Martinez and Matthew Serratto voted no.

More debate and a possible final decision on the presentation of the city’s ballot entry is set for Oct. 7.

“My observation was that the committee took its charge very seriously, and the nine members that were on there were thoughtful,” Mayor Mike Murphy said. “There were lots of different viewpoints on things but they came to a consensus.”

Here are all the key points agreed upon by the Council and presented by Shane Smith, the committee’s chairman:

• The extension of the mayor’s time in office from two 2-year terms to “no more than two 4-year terms.”

• The members of the City Council, including the mayor, shall receive an “appropriate” monthly stipend for their services based on the recommendations of a citizens commission.

• At-large appointments by the council to the Planning Commission and the Recreation and Parks Commission shall be changed to: “Six members appointed from each of the six city districts and one member will be appointed at large.”

• Give Finance Officer a direct role in reporting the City’s financial condition to the Council.

• The elimination of a “cash basis fund” established in the Charter as an annual cash flow buffer.

• The creation of a single Tax Transparency Commission empowered to provide oversight on each existing and any future special tax measures.

“It was a great idea from the beginning,” commented Councilman Martinez of the process that started in March. “Credit to Mayor Murphy for wanting to do this and being the one who initially mentioned a lot of these issues, [including appointing commission members from each district].”

During public comment, Recreation and Parks Commissioner Eric Moore urged council members to consider adding a Mission Statement, additional reforms to the finance director’s position, and a dedicated independent Internal Auditor function.

“People like to use the word ‘budget’ and they like to use the word ‘audit’ in a sentence, and it makes it sound like important things are happening,” Moore pointed out. “I think you need to inject specific language in the Charter that says that the chief finance officer of the city should be a duly licensed California CPA. I think that’s important just for a well-run government entity. Related to that, I think you need to carve out and have an explicit ‘internal audit’ auditor who is separate from staff accountants doing internal audit work. I think you really want somebody who is separate from the finance officer who has a dotted-line reporting structure to the city manager, and also has the capacity to go directly to the City Council if the need arises. You want somebody in the organization that can go into the IT Department, can go into payroll, can go into the Public Finance and Economic Development Authority, and just ask questions and follow the money.”

Moore added that the Charter change strategy is a “star-spangled opportunity to insert a Police Commission that has independent subpoena power and the ability to review allegations of police [misconduct].”

He later told the Times: “The refusal of the City Council to consider a Police Commission is a profound lost opportunity, as is the refusal to adopt a Mission Statement discussing the importance of integrity and dignity in residents' lives.”

Overall, City Council members appeared very pleased by the findings of the Charter review committee. However, debate ensued after the mayor asked staff for clarification on the best way to proceed with the agenda item on Tuesday night.

Assistant City Manager Stephanie Dietz replied that staff needed to know if they should come back to council in October with a single ballot question incorporating all the proposed Charter changes for voters to consider, or return with separate questions pertaining to each of the specific changes.

The mayor moved for a vote in favor of the former idea, and it received a “second” by Councilman Kevin Blake.

But Councilman Martinez interjected, begging to differ.

“All of these issues are not really closely related,” Martinez pointed out. “I feel that there might be reason where one could feel one way on, let’s say salaries, and then feel another way on, let’s say district [appointments] … I guess what I’m getting at is to me these seem like different issues. So a voter might read one big thing, and say: ‘I like some of this, but I don’t like that. Well what do I do? Do I vote for it all or not?’”

Councilman Serratto agreed, urging his colleagues to tread with caution.

“I think there is a little bit of wisdom in that,” he said, “particularly on the council compensation issue.”

Despite favoring compensation for city leaders who volunteer “10 to 20 hours a week,” Serratto asked: “Is it popular with the people? Probably not … I think it’s a tough sell to the public. People are going to look at it and say: ‘Look at these guys up here trying to get paid.’ … There is a potential that that sort of bleeds over to everything else. The more worthy sort of causes — such as putting that $4 million to work so we can help better serve the people with that, or the 4-year mayoral term which is probably a good idea. … And this is a little bit of a stretch, but you are having Measure C, which is a huge priority in November. If people see in March that ‘Oh, if they are trying to get more money,’ there’s even a chance it bleeds over to that, and [voters] are thinking ‘Now they are trying to get more tax money.’ … I think there’s a big potential that [this Charter issue] jeopardizes other priorities. Our own polling data showed that. The conclusion of our pollsters was that this could or will affect the other items. I think we need to be smart here. … If it’s going to jeopardize other things on the ballot, I think it’s going to be a big mistake.”

Mayor Murphy remained firm on a single ballot question: “I personally feel like its the right thing to do,” he said. “We are going to be at the tail end of a very long ballot.”

Smith, the committee chair, said: “I really feel like the entire package to me is about efficiency and accountability. … and there’s a message that the city is going to pay the council and pay the mayor because we have an expectation. And I think that goes a long way.”

But Martinez pushed back with a provocative question of his own:

“What does the city of Merced gain by making it one question instead of a few different questions? … I’m genuinely not understanding how this is advantageous to us — not ‘us’ as in the Council — but us as the City of Merced. How is it advantageous to the city and the voters to make this into one big question with what I’m counting is at least 5 or 6 different issues? … Why? .. Why don’t we want to hear from the people on each of these issues?”

Interestingly, while District 1 Councilman Martinez was opining on the subject, one of the Charter Review committee members who represented District 1 was viewing the proceedings on a Facebook livestream broadcast.

Stephanie Butticci posted this comment: “I believe when we discussed this, it was supposed to be presented to the public as separate ballot issues. This will NOT pass as one option!”

Then she added: “Thank you Anthony. It would have been a complete waste of how many meetings. It will not pass as one, and should be presented separately. Very disappointing …”

Stay tuned. More on the latest Merced City Council meeting is coming up in next week’s edition.


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