A presentation to the Turlock City Council about the elected officials’ handbook and Civility Code turned into a heated discussion about who can put something on a Council agenda and how Council members can be reprimanded.
In May 2019, the Turlock City Council unanimously approved an update to the City Officials’ Handbook and adopted a Civility Code. On Jan. 28, the Council received a refresher on parts of the handbook and Civility Code.
What started out as a presentation on key points of the handbook evolved into a back and forth discussion about how items can be placed on the Council’s agendas and the purpose of the Civility Code.
In 2019, City Attorney firm Churchwell White updated the City Officials’ Handbook to reflect the rules of a General Law city, such as Turlock, which puts the power in the Council as a whole and not the individual members of the Council. One of the things that changed was how items are placed on an agenda.
Before the update, only the Mayor or City Manager could put something on the agenda. Following the update, the Mayor along with all the Council members, can have something put on an agenda. Mayor Amy Bublak said she disagrees with this change, despite voting for it in 2019.
“Having set for 10 years as a Council member and knowing that majority is what makes something happen, your interpretation I believe is a little skewed. Having the pattern practiced of 108 years of how it’s worked, I think the public has the expectation that somebody is trying to set the vision and the agenda with the city manager. The City Council members need three people to get something to move forward, but if there’s no vision, there’s no leader being able to work with the agenda, everyone just throws things out there and we only have so much money and so much staff, you’re putting this in a different way. I don’t want to be a strong mayor. I have never asked for that… but someone needs to have the vision to set the agendas to do the work for the people and that’s where our interpretations and what you have here doesn’t mesh with the 10 years I was on Council and the pattern and practice of 108 years,” said Bublak.
City Attorney Doug White said that all the changes to the handbook follow state law and Municipal Code.
“I 100 percent absolutely have an appreciation of what I’ve learned about Turlock, what I’ve learned watching your campaign and what you campaigned and the issues you campaigned on, that may not have always been how you’ve seen things run in Turlock. That doesn’t mean the way things were run in Turlock were done correctly and it doesn’t mean the way things were done in Turlock matched actually what is in the Municipal Code or in state law. So when I come in, my job is to take the language that has been voted on and approved, language that was first enacted in 1949, amended in 1959, and use those languages to come to the conclusion,” said White.
White said that according to the government code, each Council member has the ability to put something on the agenda – within three meetings of the request.
“The public has entrusted each and every one of you in an affirmative vote to give you the power to decide what’s in the best interest of the City. The best interest of the City and the direction the City then takes it governed by where a majority vote comes in. It takes three of you to move forward on anything,” said White.
Bublak continued to argue that having all Council members putting items on the agenda would cause delay in getting things done to put the City back on track to financial stability.
“I’m not trying to be super woman, I’m just trying to officiate things so things get done and I feel like something’s wrong with the way this is being read and it’s making it impossible for anything to get done,” said Bublak.
“Candidly, I saw no reason allowing council members to put something on the agenda directly without going through this process would be problematic. So, I never contemplated being in this position I am today having to defend the idea that council members can directly put something on the agenda,” said White.
Vice Mayor Andrew Nosrati tried to get the discussion focused back onto moving forward.
“This is not a productive meeting. We need to have a focused, specific instruction as to what we’re talking about as a council and what we want to achieve…Mayor, if you would like to have a discussion about this specific ordinance, how an item gets on the agenda, I would recommend that we bring that specific, focused conservation back so we can all have a discussion about our expectations so that the people that want to do their job professionally that is in a manner that is appropriate, can do so,” said Nosrati.
“What we have here is completely unproductive; it’s not achieving anything that we want. Let’s find the specifics that we want to bring forward to an agenda; the specific items within this as opposed to a veiled presentation about something when there’s very clearly a motive in terms of what we’re trying to achieve,” Nosrati continued.
The Vice Mayor then asked Mayor Bublak to expand on her belief that she’s been unable to get something on the agenda.
Bublak said that she has been wanting to get something about civility on the agenda and has been unable to do so.
At least one Council member was happy to learn that she’s had the ability to agendize an item for the past eight months.
“I’m really happy about the change that allowed council members to put things on the agenda. I think since we shifted to districts, it kind of shifts how we should view our role…There’s never been a time before where we’ve had district council members and the ability for me to put things on the agenda that my district finds important that I don’t have to explain to all them…This is really powerful change to allow more representation for our Turlock council and also more items on the agenda that could really resonate with voters,” said Council member Nicole Larson.
The presentation went on to clarify the Civility Code.
The Civility Code was made a part of the Turlock Municipal Code in 2019, as an official law with consequences. The ethical guidelines apply to City officials during a public meeting or while carrying out his or her official duties on behalf of the City.
“It’s breaching one of these rules in a public meeting or when you’re out and about acting in your official capacity. Big distinction because as you well know, you have roles as private citizens, as a public official and just because you’re an elected official doesn’t mean that you lose your opportunity or your ability to act as a private citizen. You have your First Amendment rights,” said Nubia Goldstein, a partner in Churchwell White law firm, during her presentation to the Council.
The Rules Committee is charged with hearing complaints related to the Civility Code. Council members Gil Esquer and Nosrati serve on the Rules Committee. Three levels of action can be taken against a Council member who violates the Civility Code — admonishment, reprimand and censure, the most formal act the Council can take as a body.
“It’s the only real way under the law that you can police each other,” said Goldstein.
It was also clarified that only a Council member or Council appointed official can bring a Civility Code complaint against another Council member or official. Members of the public cannot bring a Civility Code complaint against a Council member, Mayor or appointed official.
The Council voted 4-1 (with Mayor Bublak dissenting) to save the Brown Act information for each Council member’s official training session.