A citizens committee with individuals from all six City Council districts, along with three at-large members, has approved a draft proposal for significant and far-reaching changes to the City Charter — the document that guides Merced’s governance.
Their recommendations are headed for council discussion at the Civic Center on the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 3.
Whatever the City Council decides — if action is to be taken at all — any amendment(s) to the Charter would have to go before the voters, and the expressed intent of city leaders is to have a ballot entry for the March primary election.
“I believe we have advanced common-sense proposals that will help improve efficiency and accountability within city government, update the nature of the city’s elected offices in step with changing times, and extend by-district selection of city leaders to charter-level commissions,” wrote Shane Smith, the committee chair, in a report to the council.
Among the committee’s proposals are:
• The extension of the mayor’s time in office from two 2-year terms to “no more than two 4-year terms.” Committee discussion indicated the change should be applied prospectively for future mayors, and should not apply to those who have already served two terms as mayor and are not eligible to run again.
• The members of the City Council, including the mayor, shall receive a monthly stipend for their services. A citizens commission shall be established to recommend the dollar amount, and to review it at set intervals.
• With regard to the makeup of the city’s Planning Commission and the Recreation and Parks Commission, at-large appointments by the council shall be changed to: “Six members appointed from each of the six city districts and one member will be appointed at large.”
• Update to language in Section 604 (B) of the Charter: “The city’s finance officer shall compile the budget expense and revenue estimates for the City Council, based upon the city manager’s proposed budget; and at the end of the fiscal year, prepare and submit a complete report on the finances of the city to the City Council, in consultation with the city manager.”
• The elimination of a “cash basis fund” established in the Charter as an annual cash flow buffer ($4 million) that’s required to be at the same level at the end of every fiscal year.
• The creation of a Tax Transparency Commission empowered to review each existing and any future special tax measures.
How it all began
The effort to review the City Charter was first brought up by Mayor Mike Murphy at the March 18 meeting of the City Council. The mayor requested a process be started to create a citizens review committee and ballot proposal. He mentioned three items of particular concern: the cash basis fund, the mayoral term, and the makeup of charter-level commissions.
Mayor Murphy said the cash fund had not been tapped into in recent years, even during the recession, and according to the finance officer, it was an unneeded mechanism. He recommended the chunk of money be used to pay down pension liability for employees.
Murphy argued the city would be better served by a four-year mayor who could run for a second four-year term, as opposed to a two-year mayor who faces a final re-election campaign after just a year in office.
“I don’t plan to run again,” he said of his idea. “It’s not for me.”
At a later meeting, Murphy also opined on the idea of increasing the stipend for council members. He mentioned a former council colleague who faced accumulating expenses due to time spent at meetings and events. The mayor noted that this leader decided not to run for re-election.
Murphy told the Times recently that his ideas for a Charter review came about after serving five years as a council member, going through a previous amendment process, and seeing things that would benefit the city as it grows and moves forward.
Nevertheless, while a short mayoral term and a small token compensation ($20 a month for council members, $50 a month for the mayor) for serving the city has been a subject of jokes among leadership circles, the idea of changing the situation had not been brought up previously as serious issues during open council meetings.
“It was never a concern for me personally,” said Councilman Kevin Blake of the stipends. “I’ve been on the council since 2013, and I didn’t get into this role for the money. My goal was to improve the city and serve the community.”
Councilman Anthony Martinez revealed to the Times that the mayor discussed the idea of an extended mayoral term with him more than a year ago.
“When he brought it up, I thought it was a good idea,” Martinez said. “With the salary issue, people in the community have never brought up any concerns about that with me. I don’t feel strong about it one way or the other.”
Councilman Fernando Echevarria said he was neutral about increased stipends for council members, and he’s the only person on the council without a regular, full-time job. He receives disability payments due to a work related injury. “I wanted to do good things for the residents in the community,” he said. “I’m not in it for the money.”
However, Echevarria does feel strongly about the mayoral term. He has already expressed his desire to keep it at no more than two, 2-year terms.
“It allows the mayor to work harder in those two years,” he says. “Four years is too long for a mayor because of the power the mayor wields. With a 2-year term, if people are unhappy with the mayor, they don’t have to wait to see change.”
In any event, on May 20, the City Council appointed members to the Citizens Advisory Charter Review Committee. The final panel included: Chair Shane Smith, Vice Chair Sara Hill, Stephanie Butticci (District 1), Liliana Nava (District 2), Ryan Heller (District 4), Robert Haden (District 5); and at-large members Loretta Spence, Sarah Boyle and Tim O’Neill. Mayor Murphy and Councilman Martinez were chosen as ex-oficio members.
The committee held five public meetings with the last one on Aug. 22. Surprisingly, these important discussions were not televised, and only two people from the public showed up: Casey Steed, a political talk show host on local KYOS radio; and Kenra Bragonier, a diligent volunteer for the region’s League of Women Voters.
The 25th Of July
One of the more lively and intense meetings happened on July 25.
City Attorney Phaedra Norton got things going with a slide show presentation on council compensation models in the state.
There’s a California Government Code that recommends $600 per month for council members, allowing for a 5 percent annual increase. But that part of the code was set in 1986, so if you tack on the annual increases, it would be $2,470 a month. Nevertheless, some of the committee members expressed support for using a baseline state-recommended number like $600 as a possible model for Merced to consider.
Committee members agreed that the current stipends for Merced City Council members was very low at $20 a month, and needed to be increased.
“You can stay on a week-long jury in court and get paid more,” one of them observed.
But member Tim O’Neil pointed out: “I don’t think going from $20 to $600 is politically viable. I think we pick a number like $250 and put that in the Charter.”
Member Robert Haden backed an approach taken by the city of Stockton that uses a citizens committee to determine the stipend with reviews.
“I think a citizens group would be a good way to approach this,” he told his colleagues. “It would be transparent, and the council and mayor wouldn’t be involved in setting their own salaries. … I do think it’s terribly important that our elected leaders be compensated for all the effort they put into serving the community. They are not going to get rich, but at least they are going to get paid something.”
Haden’s argument eventually won out as the creation of a citizens committee for stipend review was included in the Charter draft proposal. The committee also agreed to not put dollar amount limits on the possible stipends, opting only for the words “reasonable compensation.”
Also on July 25, a majority of the committee agreed that a 4-year term was warranted for the mayor. The number of terms was decided on later.
However, Chair Smith brought up the idea of adding language to allow for the re-election of a former mayor after a cooling off period. He half jokingly described it as the “Jerry Brown Provision.” He suggested that after a period of 16 years — more or less the time it takes for an entirely new City Council to take shape — that a former mayor could start over, so to speak.
There was some lively discussion and the issue was tabled to the next meeting when Smith had a change of heart after considering the increase in the mayoral term and the city’s districting process.
“We wanted to open up representation across town geographically and create leadership pipelines from parts of the city that may not have been represented on the council in the past,” he said. “In a way what we would be doing is opening up an opportunity for someone who has already been a mayor to come and compete against people who are out of that very same leadership pipeline who we talked about empowering.”
A come-back provision was not included in the committee’s recommendations, but it was added to the notes at the end of the final report.
Elephant in the room
The July 25 meeting ended with a short, eyebrow raising discussion, according to some who were there to witness it, and transcripts of the meeting.
If you thought the City Charter changes Mayor Murphy initiated back in March was a major, surprising initiative, what he proposed at the two-hour mark during the July 25 meeting sort of took the cake, so to speak.
Murphy suggested the committee consider a conversation on Merced having a “strong mayor.”
“One of the fun things I get to do here is introduce things and I don’t have to vote on it,” he told the committee. “But it is, I would say, one of the touchier topics. In some ways when people in the public hear or understand that there is a Charter commission that’s been convened, one of the questions that comes forward is: Are they going to talk about a strong mayor. And so I’m curious to hear your thoughts on whether you want a conversation about that or not. In terms of what a strong mayor is and isn’t, I think there is some notion that the elected mayor takes the place of the profession staff which is not the case. So like in the city of Fresno: There is a strong mayor, there’s a city manager. There are all those things, and the main difference is that the city manager reports to the mayor — sort of the operational side of the house, and the City Council is sort of the legislative side of the house. If there is no interest in it … I totally get it. I also in some ways feel its a little bit of the elephant in the room for maybe some folks, but others mention it as well. … Again, if there is no interest that’s fine, but I did want to bring that forward.”
The room became somewhat quiet. Member Sara Hill voiced some support, but then Haden and O’Neil offered up a few short replies about how that topic was not on the agenda, not within the scope of talks, and not something for them to consider.
In short, the committee was not interested.
Before it was dropped for good, the mayor also added that they might want to consider including the idea in their report to the council as a topic deserving of a further discussion.
They were not interested in that either.
The conversation was not continued, and nothing appeared on the matter in the commitee’s final report.
• Regarding stipends and the committee’s final proposal to create a citizens committee to determine the dollar amounts … Public hearings on stipends would be held on a biennial basis for council members, and every mayoral election year for the mayor.
The report says: “The stipend recommended for the mayor shall, at a minimum, be the same as the other council members; however, the commission may recommend providing the mayor with reasonable compensation beyond his/her stipend as a member of the City Council. The Council shall, by resolution, adopt the stipends as recommended by the commission, or in some lesser amount, but in no event may it increase the amount.”
• Regarding appointments by districts to the Planning Commission and the Recreation and Parks Commission … “Should a district appointment remain vacant for more than 90 days, the City Council has the authority and may elect to appointment an otherwise-qualified at large member to fill the district vacancy.”
About the overall proposal to appoint by district, one Times source commented: “The committee loved the idea and they supported it without any opposition. It was the right thing to do.”
The committee’s decision comes at a time when community groups have been calling for more south Merced representation on the various city panels.
• Regarding the Section 604 and the city’s finance officer … The apparent intent of the Charter change is to protect the ability of the chief finance officer to issue unbiased financial advice about city finances and the annual budget to the City Council. It supports the finance officer as a charter level officer hired by the council.
• Member Ryan Heller pushed for several reforms that were not included in the Charter Review proposals, but made it into the report as issues discussed.
He proposed mechanisms to protect Charter officers. He proposed eliminating the City Council’s ability to consolidate Charter officers among one or two city employees
“I didn’t want the mechanisms in place to allow for a hostile takeover of city government,” he later explained to the Times.
Heller also proposed limiting the duration of any contract with an external vendor for services ordinarily held by a Charter officer to one-year. He argued that the practice has been abused in other municipalities.
The next Merced City Council meeting is Tuesday, Sept. 3, a day after the Labor Day holiday. Committee members Shane Smith and Sara Hill are scheduled to present the committee’s Charter Review report to council.