MAIN LIBRARY — The Santa Monica City Council ended a long-standing practice of sending council members to board and commission meetings for fear of prompting litigation at its retreat Sunday.
In a 5-2 vote, the council passed a resolution to end the current liaison system, and further directed staff to create a formal policy surrounding the relationship between individual council members and the boards.
The conflict was raised by a December 2010 article that appeared in the League of California Cities publication, Western City, said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie.
Councilmembers who attend the meetings as official liaisons run the risk of violating due process, influencing the independent commissions or compromising the ability of the council member to vote on issues later, Moutrie wrote in a staff report.
The presence of an official with the ability to appoint or remove commissioners can also have a chilling effect.
“This is a theoretical concern,” Moutrie said. “I’m not suggesting in any way that anyone in Santa Monica that has served as a liaison acted improperly.”
Certain boards and commissions are more likely to result in a negative outcome, particularly quasi-judicial entities such as the Landmarks Commission, Architectural Review Board, Personnel Board and the Planning Commission.
The designation “quasi-judicial” refers to the processes that commissions like the Planning Commission go through by applying local laws to approve or deny modifications to properties.
“They apply local law to facts and properties,” Moutrie said. “If a council member were there on the dais and then the matter were appealed, there could be a legal issue with pre-judgment.”
By either modifying how council members fulfilled those liaison responsibilities, or by eliminating the liaison position altogether, the potential for litigation could be eliminated before it began.
At the meeting Sunday, staff presented the council members with two options: either modify the practice to maintain the first-point-of-contact with specific council members, or end it outright.
Several council members reacted to the news with sentiments akin to relief, while others expressed concern that the council could lose contact with the active commissions.
The sheer quantity of commissions makes it difficult for council members to commit to attending each meeting, said Councilmember Robert Holbrook.
“It’s awfully hard to be the official liaison for three to five councils,” Holbrook said Tuesday. “The problem for some of us is that we have other things in our lives. It just became hard.”
Mayor Robert Bloom noted that the liaison positions can cause more harm than good.
“It’s apparent to me that liaisons, for various reasons usually related to time, weren’t attending meetings,” he said. “There was an expectation on the part of the boards and commissions, and disappointment when the liaison didn’t attend the meeting.”
Councilwoman Gleam Davis pointed out that she as a council person appreciated her opportunities to be the formal liaison to commissions as a resource rather than an active participant, and that the position allowed boards and commissions to connect directly with a council person that was familiar with their issues.
“The important thing is that they know that this is their entree to the City Council,” Davis said.
Councilman Bobby Shriver objected, noting that no citizen had ever seemed shy about expressing their opinions to him.
“I do find that people are pretty aggressive. They tend to get a hold of you. I think that’s a tradition in the community that’s good,” Shriver said.
The City Council voted to end the current system in a 5 to 2 vote, with Davis and Councilmember Kevin McKeown against.
McKeown, who attends a large number of extra commission meetings, felt that the current system created a strong connection between the council and its subordinate commissions and boards.
“I regret changing something that I do not think is broken,” McKeown said.