Concerns about public involvement in the city’s political process dominated the third and apparently last meeting between Mayor Alan Galbraith and the residents who tried to recall him from office last year.
The topic of Monday’s meeting was “due process,” which according to Galbraith’s critics involved communication and respect for public input.
Speakers cited examples such as water rate increases – which they want the city to re-evaluate – and the council’s approval of a reconfigured Beringer tank farm and Joe McGrath’s 8-unit housing project on McCorkle Avenue, which both faced heavy opposition from neighbors.
People “are concerned about decisions that are being made quickly and maybe without looking at alternatives or hearing the public voice,” said Peter Scott.
He said the former organizers of the recall want periodic public forums chaired by the city manager, a reexamination of the water rates, a Code of Conduct for city governance, a review of the city’s legal services, and for the mayor to adopt a more consensus-based leadership style that welcomes public input.
In response to the specific requests, Galbraith said he would support holding regular public meetings, modeled on the mayor’s forums in Calistoga, where the public can interact with elected officials and selected city staff.
Galbraith said the water and wastewater rates will have to be reevaluated anyway, but not necessarily right away as his critics would prefer. He said councilmembers are already bound by a Code of Conduct, but he’d be open to modifying it. (The council adopted the code in 2011.) Galbraith said the council has been able to reduce its legal budget significantly as a few time-consuming lawsuits have been settled or decided in court.
Winery water use
As for his leadership style, Galbraith said he’s always willing to listen to other people’s views and never turns down a request to meet with residents, except under rare circumstances, such as when the City Council is going to hear an appeal of a Planning Commission decision.
“Please, if you want to see me, send me an email,” Galbraith said.
In approving the Beringer and McGrath projects, Galbraith said the council relied on clear legal advice that both projects were subject only to design review, not a use permit process that would allow a deeper consideration of neighbors’ environmental objections.
A few speakers said they want more transparency about water bills for wineries that have water contracts with the city.
“We just want to know wineries are paying the same rate for their water as we’re paying for ours,” said Tom Belt.
Galbraith said that while the council has decided not to release the total amounts those wineries are paying, “our industrial customers pay our published utility rates.”
“Then show us!” a few people in the crowd interjected.
‘Exaggerated false news’
Citing Star headlines about the city’s financial troubles, Lana Ivanoff asked why Galbraith hadn’t corrected the record after what she called “exaggerated false news.”
“Over the last several years, our paper has chosen to cut off our access to the whole story,” Ivanoff said, adding that the city’s finances were healthy then and now.
Galbraith responded that while he can’t control what the Star reports on, the city was facing serious financial challenges before the Measure D sales tax took effect, and is still struggling to fund major capital improvements and deferred maintenance on its facilities.
He encouraged people to get involved in the SHAPE Committee, which is conducting a major evaluation of the city’s public buildings. It meets Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. at Vintage Hall.
Fairness and empathy
A few speakers defended Galbraith. Since it takes three votes for the council to do anything, it’s not fair to blame Galbraith alone for the council’s actions, said Tracy Sweeney, a former planning commissioner.
“What I’m hearing tonight is that if your point isn’t agreed with by the mayor, then somehow the mayor’s doing something wrong,” Sweeney said. “And I think that’s unfair.”
Steve Goldfarb said he was “somewhat hopeful” when the dialogue between the mayor and his critics began. “But as this went on, it becomes clearer and clearer that if you didn’t like the result of something, it was the mayor’s fault,” he said, adding that there have been ample opportunities for public input.
However, Galbraith’s critics said they want him to listen and show more empathy. Ivanoff quoted a Star editorial that praised Galbraith for backing up his positions with facts and figures.
“As a citizen here, I sometimes would like our public officials to show up and leave their position at home,” Ivanoff said. “I’d like them to come and listen, to engage in back-and-forth dialogue to listen to the concerns that I have.”
Scott also called for a more open, empathetic dialogue between residents and the council. He told Galbraith that as a trained lawyer, “you are a fact-based guy, a research-driven, smart individual who gathers your facts like a good attorney and then locks in on your decision.”
“I would only ask that you open up that process to others, and even go along with a decision that you disagree with, that your facts do not support,” Scott said. “Because it’s empathetic.”