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Alhambra Council Approves Budget, OKs Ballot, Legal Challenge Agreement Detailed

Council Member Jeff Maloney makes his comments during the second reading of the ballot measure at the June 8 Zoom council meeting.

Location

Alhambra , CA

The Alhambra City Council Monday night approved a lean “Hold the Line” budget for the new fiscal year starting July 1 and gave the final OK to an ordinance detailing what will be included on the ballot for the November election. And, for the first time, an item on the consent agenda detailed terms of the agreement with attorney Kevin Shenkman on a legal challenge against the city seeking voluntary change in its system of governance from at-large to by-district voting.

That agreement could be impacted if the November ballot initiative, a compromise measure worked out by the city and Grassroots Alhambra, on campaign finance reform and a change to by-district voting fails at the polls and certain subsequent steps are not taken by the city.

The budget was outlined by Pearl Lieu, the city’s director of finance. She termed it a “Hold the Line” budget saying that it was modeled after the current budget and shows overall revenues at $71 million and expenditures at $69.8 million.

Lieu presented much of this information during a budget workshop for the council at a special meeting on May 28 and there was little obvious deviation here. Her powerpoint outlined some capital improvement projects for various departments, most prominently police and fire, and she suggested the council could find funding in this area for other projects if they so choose.

But there seemed to be little appetite on the part of council members to take money from the capital improvement projects as outlined in the budget.

In emails to the city read by City Clerk Lauren Myles, several residents again urged a delay in approving this document reminding council that in past years it had been solidly linked to the goals set forth in the annual Strategic Planning Meeting. 

“Any budget is a moral document,” wrote Chris Olson, noting that how the city decides to spend reflects its core values. Residents, she said, have had “limited opportunity to review the budget and comment. Please reflect on this before you vote tonight.”

Strategic Planning Meeting Set

The city has had to cancel two planned Strategic Planning sessions due to the COVID-19 public gathering restrictions. The planning meeting is now scheduled for next Tuesday, June 16, at 9 a.m. and will conducted as a Zoom call.

Commenting on the change in the process, City Manager Jessica Binnquist said that revisions in the budget could still be made after the planning session. Before the council voted 5-0 to approve, council member Jeff Maloney wondered if another council meeting could be added to give the public more time to review, digest and comment on the budget. But that idea had little support from his colleagues with the knowledge that the budget document could be revised by item after the Strategic Planning Meeting. 

Other residents commented that the capital improvement project decisions seemed murky and without public input and urged the council to create an apparatus for public input, workshops perhaps, in future budgetary discussions.

November Ballot

The second reading of the proposed ordinance detailing what would be on the ballot in the November election elicited a number of public comments all on the subject of the voting by-district and campaign finance reform initiative. Eighteen of the emailed comments voiced support.

“I greatly appreciate the negotiation and compromise on each side,” wrote resident Cliff Bender. “Those with diverging points of view worked together and this is  how government should work. I support this and urge unanimous approval.”

Another resident, Lewis McCammon, wrote, “I reiterate my support for this measure and and congratulate the city council and Grassroots for this compromise.”

But others found fault connecting the threat of legal action to the compromise.

“I just have to comment,” said Barbara Messina by telephone, “I applaud the three council members for stepping up and doing what was required of them ethically to move forward. Disturbing that the city had to be bullied to do this.”

Messina, a former mayor and current member of the planning commission, was referring to an attempt by Mayor Ross Maza, Vice Mayor David Mejia and Council member Maloney to have an alternate measure placed on the November ballot that would impose campaign spending limits while retaining the at-large voting model.

That attempt was withdrawn after the city received a letter from Shenkman asking it to voluntarily change its at-large voting system or face a legal challenge. That letter was followed in a few days by a separate letter from attorney Scott Rafferty seeking the same changes. 

Maza and Maloney subsequently negotiated with Grassroots on the compromise language in the initiative that was part of the ballot ordinance that got its second read, and unanimous approval, Monday night. One other point came after the approval vote when City Attorney Joseph Montes asked council if they wanted — as stipulated — by the charter to craft a 300-word argument in favor of the ballot measure.

This brought some discussion and Maloney and Council Member Adele Andrade-Stadler volunteered to draft language that would be brought back to the council for discussion possibly in its July meeting. The language would need to be approved by August for submission to the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder. 

Settlement Outlined in Consent Agenda

Before the council voted on the second read, it took up a lengthy consent agenda of 23 items, and the main event here was item 23, Consideration of Approval of a Settlement Agreement Concerning an Alleged Violation of the California Voting Rights Act. The settlement is with attorney Kevin Shenkman and his clients in the matter, one of which was Grassroots Alhambra.

The settlement agreement would:

  1. Require that the negotiated ballot measure be place on the November ballot.
  2. Require the proponents of the original initiative measure withdraw that measure in writing within 10 days after the ordinance placing the negotiated ballot measure is given a second reading by the City Council.
  3. Provide that if the negotiated measure passes in November, then the city’s first election of Council members by-district take place in 2022 based upon the amendments to the charter.
  4. Provide that if the negotiated measure does not pass in November, then the City Council will undertake certain public hearings concerning formation of districts in 2021, after the last census data comes out, and then consider an ordinance that would switch the elections to by-district. Failure to adopt that ordinance would void the settlement.
  5. Restrict the City from using one particular demographer in the 2021 redistricting process.
  6. Provide a payment of $30,000 to Shenkman and Hughes (this is slightly less than the statutorily authorized amount under Election Code section 10010).

It was not immediately clear what, if any, impact this agreement might have on the letter from attorney Rafferty or it that matter had been settled.

This along with the rest of the consent agenda was unanimously approved by council but not before several residents commented on item 23. Most were opposed  to the measure maintaining that the by-district provision takes away voting rights. Others called it “a sad day for Alhambra.”

District Boundaries Discussed

In staff, council comment after the vote the notion of drawing new district boundaries was touched upon and Montes said that process would be initiated by submitting a request for proposal to demographers who might be qualified to handle the assignment. This seemed one of the few times that the actual nuts and bolts work of changing to district-by-district process had been touched upon either by city officials, council members or those pressing to change the system.  

The meeting was long, nearly four hours, and at the end during community comments for items not on the agenda some questions were raised about Alhambra Police Department procedures, including restraint practices in the wake of  the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Binnquist offered that she and Police Chief Timothy Vu were planning a town hall event, probably by Zoom meeting, where the Alhambra police chief would outline his department’s policies.

Council members were fully on board on this and also thanked police and fire for their professionalism in keeping the city safe during the wave of protests nationally following the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis.

Council member Adele Andrade Stadler particularly thanked Vu and the department for the sensitive manner in which they worked with students last Thursday on a protest march from Almansor Park to City Hall. 

“The police department did a great job in getting students from point A to point B and it spoke volumes,” she said. “APD got them to City Hall and let them alone to rally,” she added, underscoring the sensitive nature of their negotiation with the protesters and their response.

Binnquist appreciated the comments and said, “we were also very appreciative of the students […] who picked up after their fellow students or adults who had left signs or half-empty water bottles. They left the Second Street side in the same shape that they found it.”

Other items

The council meeting held at the Reese Hall was long and complex. At the beginning, the council heard two presentations:

  1. Discussion of Locally Preferred SR-710 alternative — the north 710 arterial with I-10 interchange upgrades — and direction to initiate the alternative. 
  2. A discussion of Measure H Housing Feasibility. 

Both of these presentations, and another on adopting Vehicle Miles Traveled Thresholds of significance for purposes of analyzing transportation impacts under the California  Environmental Quality Act, may be found in the video near the beginning of the Zoom call from Monday’s meeting.

Powerpoint presentations related to these items can be found in the agenda packet.

This story was updated at 10:20 p.m. to reflect a change in council members who negotiated with Grassroots. When linking to a previous Alhambra Source article, the original wording said Mejia negotiated, when it was Maza. We have corrected the text.

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