The bulk of this Tuesday’s city council agenda is continued from the last council meeting, which went to after midnight without getting to most of the discussion items. A hallmark of the new Tait majority seems to be overstuffing the council agenda with more items than they can realistically get through in the course of an evening. What’s the rush? A good question to which no answer have been supplied.
Among the put-over items is Councilman James Vanderbilt’s proposal to require council approval of any professional services agreement of more than $50,000. If the council adopts it, they can look forward to even bigger, longer council agendas – and that is the least of the consequences – intended or not – of this proposal.
Currently, the city manager’s “signing authority” threshold – the contract amount he can approve without going to the city council – stands at $100,000, which is common among cities of Anaheim’s size. The threshold has been adjusted three times since 2004, when it was increased to $100,000 from $25,000. In November 2010, it was increased to $250,000 based on an anticipated increase in the efficiency of the contracting process.
A year later, Mayor Tom Tait moved to have it changed back to $100,000 – saying he believed the higher threshold “excessive” and noting like-size California cities such as Santa Monica, Irvine, Long Beach and Los Angeles had a $100,000 threshold.
Then-City Manager Tom Wood explained during that council meeting that only 12 of the 243 contracts processed that year fell within the $100,000 to $250,000 range.
Nonetheless, Mayor Tait’s motion carried 4-1, with only then-Councilmember Lorri Galloway voting in opposition.
Why Change It Again?
Last month, Vanderbilt told Anaheim Blog that his “interest in adjusting the spending authority relates, in part, to a $71,000 contract with a consulting firm that studied the economic viability of the performing arts center located at the site of The Grove of Anaheim. The contract was connected to a request made by a council member on Oct. 7. 2014 requesting staff to bring back an agreement for consideration to develop the center. I believe it would have been helpful to know that the need for the study was an integral part of the request for the agreement.”
That may be, but should the entire policy be changed because in a single instance it might have been helpful information? It’s debatable (at best) that a council vote on an October 2014 contract – prior to Vanderbilt’s election – would have been made a difference in the outcome of the Anaheim Performing Arts Foundation vote two years later.
There’s a saying that “hard cases make for bad law,” and this policy response would to be an example. It will increase the number of staff reports and contracts councilmembers will have to read for each meeting – $50,000-$100,000 contracts heretofore handled without issue by the city manager’s office. It’s unclear what, if any, benefit is to be derived by involving the city council.
If transparency is the concern, the city already posts all bids, RFPs, info on contract awards and contracts of $20,000 or more on the city website – where they can be accessed and researched by the public, councilmembers and their policy aides.
An unanswered question is what problem would be solved by lowering the approval threshold?
Potential for Political Mischief With Council Aide Contracts
Vanderbilt’s proposal has the potential for council mischief when it comes to councilmembers’ policy aides because it applies to professional services contracts for council policy aides.
The policy aides to Mayor Tait and Councilman Moreno are city employees and not affected. However, the policy aides to several council members – Kris Murray, Steve Faessel, Denise Barnes, Lucille Kring – are independent contractors. Since the policy aide budgets for each councilmember are now more than $70,000, councilmembers council members who go the independent contractor route will have to get council approval for their choices under Vanderbilt’s proposal. Obviously, this creates the opportunities for mischief, such as the council majority refusing to approve an out-of-favor councilmember’s choice of policy aide(s).
Farfetched? At the last council meeting, during an exchange with Kris Murray over compensation for the new Chief Policy Advisor to the Mayor position, Mayor Tom Tait referred to her policy aides hourly rate, saying “I haven’t questioned it. Maybe I should. Maybe I should.”
I asked Councilman Vanderbilt about this possibility last month. He replied: ”I didn’t consider the council aide contracts when making the request and I wasn’t planning to bring them up now or in the future.”
That’s reassuring and I’ve no doubt the councilman is sincere. But regardless of Vanderbilt’s intent, his proposal does apply to policy aides who are independent contractors (if their contract exceeds $50,000). This isn’t a matter of the old council majority v. the new Tait majority. Voting blocs change and shift. After 2018, there could well be a different voting majority in charge. Given human nature, Anaheim’s recent history of intra-council bitterness and the likelihood of future acrimony, the prudent thing would be amending Vanderbilt’s proposal to exclude policy aide contracts. In light of Councilman Vanderbilt’s statement, there should be no issue in him doing so.
Or the council could simply take a pass on Vanderbilt’s proposal – at least until presented with evidence of deficiencies with the current threshold and advancement of a compelling rationale for a change.