Relatively short night, although those are the ones where we tend to opine a little too much.
We started the evening with a closed session regarding labor negotiations with the Sunnyvale Employees Association (SEA). I can’t discuss even generally what’s being negotiated, and I’m sure there are questions, since we only just signed a new contract with SEA. Nothing to worry about, I’ll just say. I’ll try to find out what, if anything, can be disclosed regarding this, because disclosure would be a good thing. [UPDATE – it turns out that information is part of the published MOU, section 22, so I’m permitted to elaborate. We agreed to revisit possible changes to paid time off and sick leave in February, in order to conclude the rest of the agreement in time to meet the state’s December 31st deadline.]
We then went into open session, and the initial part went pretty fast. No special orders, no presentations, no announcements. The consent calendar came next, and a colleague pulled the minutes and the list of bills. A member of the public pulled the Fire Marshal item. And the balance of the consent calendar was approved on a 7-0 vote.
During public comments, the City Manager broke the news about Moody’s maintaining its Aaa rating for Sunnyvale’s credit. This was a big deal. I should explain that the rating itself doesn’t matter too much to us, because we don’t have any plans to use that credit. There hasn’t been any discussion in a couple of years about issuing debt. The reason why it matters so much is that Moody’s spends a lot of time looking at cities and understanding how they operate. So when Moody’s (or Standard and Poors) issues a finding about a city, it not only reflects on that city – it reflects on that city as compared to every other city that Moody’s has reviewed. So when Moody’s says good things about a city, it means the city is doing well compared to most other cities. And when they say bad things, it’s very bad.
Anyway, Moody’s had some really great things to say:
- They specifically commended Sunnyvale’s practice of paying more than the CalPERS minimum (19% more for pensions), and our OPEB trust fund, two things that few cities do, and that help us to aggressively address our unfunded liabilities.
- They commended our high reserves – $88 million, some 70% of our annual budget.
- They specifically noted how Sunnyvale’s economic recovery is outpacing both the state and national averages.
- They noted that our city debt as a percentage of full assessed value is 1/10th that of the average of the other Aaa cities. We have extremely low debt, representing 0.1% of our assessed value.
This made for a good night.
We then got into general business. Item 2 involved our legislative advocacy positions for this year. Staff had four or five cleanup items that didn’t attract much attention. After a little discussion, a motion was made to approve staff’s recommended positions plus one additional one – support of CEQA reform. I seconded this, and it was approved on a 5-2 vote. I’ll try to explain the CEQA thing. CEQA is the California Environmental Quality Act, and it mandates certain procedures which must be followed to determine the environmental impact of a project before it is started. It’s the law that requires Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs). The concern that all cities have is that CEQA is very vague, and that it has become the popular tool for nay-sayers to attack municipal projects, rather than a tool for environmental protection. We saw the problem with CEQA first-hand in Sunnyvale – we were defendants in two separate CEQA cases with the same legal claim over the past five years. In one case, we lost, appealed, and lost again. In the other case, we won, plaintiff appealed, and we won again. Two different sets of judges, two different cases with the same CEQA claim, two different results. And this is pretty typical of cities’ experiences – they have no idea whether or not they’re properly following CEQA until some judge finally tells them yes or no. And having court judgements as the only way to get that answer is a really bad thing.
I supported this because of my own experience dealing with CEQA issues. Most of the time, CEQA does a great job of providing proper environmental safeguards. But every once in a while, the staff answer to a CEQA concern is “we really don’t know”. I’m confident that with a few small changes, CEQA can be cleaned up so that its intent is more clear, and so that it can be properly used as a tool for environmental protection and not just a sledgehammer for obstructionists to wield whenever they want.
Items 3-5 were taxicab franchise approvals, and with very little discussion, we approved all three on separate 7-0 votes.
Item 6 involved establishing a friendly exchange relationship with Dubna, Russia. This one provoked some questions because it wasn’t clear to most of us how this came to be, and because it wasn’t clear what benefit this would have for the city. But after some discussion, we voted 7-0 to establish the relationship.
Item 7 was the big topic of the evening, other than the credit rating. Councilmember Meyering got an appointment to the League of California Cities Employee Relations Policy Committee back at the beginning of December. But he didn’t notify staff or anyone on council, so nobody knew about it. And Council Policy requires a councilmember to get the full council to ratify all committee assignments before he is empowered to represent the city, and before he can get reimbursed for travel expenses related to the committee appointment. For this reason, we have an agenda item at the beginning of January to ratify all committee assignments/appointments, and we have a study session at the end of December so everyone can discuss their appointments, and so staff can prepare the report for council to do the ratifications. For whatever reason, this particular appointment wasn’t mentioned and wasn’t put on the list. So item 7 asked Council to ratify Councilmember Meyering’s appointment.
After no discussion, a move was made to ratify the appointment, but it wasn’t seconded. A second motion was made to deny the ratification, which I seconded. A substitute motion was made to take it into a study session, which was seconded, but it failed on a 2-4-1 vote (I opposed). After not too much discussion, the motion passed on a 5-1-1 vote (I agreed). I then made an additional motion. Council policy requires all elected and appointed officials to sign a “Model of Excellence”, which simply says that the signer has read and understood Sunnyvale’s Code of Ethical Conduct. I moved to direct staff to return with an agenda item to modify Council policy to say that anyone who hasn’t signed the Model of Excellence cannot represent Sunnyvale on committees. This provoked a huge discussion of ethics and conduct. A friendly amendment was made (and accepted) to include state AB 1234 (mandatory ethics training) in the agenda item. A friendly amendment was made to do a full revision of the Code of Ethical Conduct, which I denied (we do such reviews once a year already). It was then offered as a formal amendment, and it failed on a 2-5 vote (I dissented). And after a whole lot of discussion, the main motion passed on a 5-2 vote (I agreed). A colleague then moved to direct staff to hold a team-building retreat, and that passed on a 5-2 vote (I agreed). A very confusing sequence of votes, indeed.
My concern with this is pretty simple. IGRs are tricky things. When we get one of these assignments, our responsibility is to represent the full city council – both in terms of its policies and in terms of actively advocating on behalf of the city. Generally, councilmembers are assumed to be qualified and capable to do so, and they’re assumed to understand and respect this responsibility, because we have virtually no means of oversight, particularly when an IGR is in a distant location. Ratification really means “we are authorizing you to represent the full council” But if we have a serious concern that that representation will not be properly done – that an individual may not act in the city’s best interests, that an individual may represent his or her personal positions before the city’s positions, or other similar concerns, then we aren’t supposed to ratify that assignment. In this case, I had concerns related to things like this.
We then went back to the consent calendar pulls. A motion was made to amend last meeting’s minutes, which failed on a 2-5 vote (I dissented). I moved to approve the minutes as presented, which passed on a 5-2 vote. The list of bills was then passed on a 6-1 vote.
We then discussed the fire marshal issue. In brief, staff proposed combining a uniformed (lieutenant) position with a civilian HAZMAT position into a single civilian fire marshal position, as a cost-savings issue. There were some questions about exactly what was happening and why – the resident who pulled the issue didn’t understand that there is a headcount reduction (through attrition) and cost savings by doing so. So that information was explained to the resident. After some further questions, a motion was made to approve the change, which passed on a 7-0 vote.
We then went into closed session regarding City Manager compensation, per this new process. We came out and I announced that we had decided to bring to a future council meeting a contract amendment for the City Manager.
We then had IGR reports, in which I had to actually take a straw poll, to make sure I’m representing us properly on the Caltrain Modernization committee. They’re going to be debating “level boarding” – whether or not to have trains that require people to climb stairs when boarding. Note that because we don’t have HSR yet and because electrification requires all new trains, we’re going to be replacing all of the vehicles, which gives us the opportunity to deal with this. But default HSR and Caltrain vehicles have different boarding heights. So requiring level boarding would cost us up-front money for some different vehicle designs. Anyway, my colleagues were supportive of level boarding, so that’s what I’ll advocate for.
And that’s about it. Next meeting is on the 12th, which looks light, so far. We have a study session on the comprehensive sign code revision, and we have a report that has to be made to the state regarding implementation of our housing sub-element.