City Council Team Building Retreat A Success
The Costa Mesa City Council had an unusual event yesterday afternoon/evening. They met for a "retreat" at the Hilton Hotel - a team building exercise facilitated by a consultant. It was interesting, to say the very least.
THESE SESSIONS USUALLY WORK
Let me say up front that I've attended many such events - actually conducted a couple - in my private sector career assignments. They were usually held at offsite locations - a resort, hotel, etc. - and always proved to be a worthwhile exercise because the atmosphere was casual and loosely structured to encourage positive interaction - and nobody from the outside was looking over your shoulder.
BROWN ACT CONSTRICTION
This event, which is necessarily constricted by the Brown Act, still provided many of the positive elements even though there were a half-dozen residents and a Daily Pilot reporter on the scene. You can read Luke Money's report in the Daily Pilot HERE.
WARM AND COZY
Beginning at 4:00, the small, warm room - had to keep those yummy appetizers warm, for goodness sake - was configured so the council members and staff - City Manager Tom Hatch, City Attorney Tom Duarte and Assistant City Manager Tammy Letourneau - were seated in a "U" formation, so each could have easy eye contact with the others. The consultant, Jan Perkins of Management Partners (the same firm that did the Police Department study a few years ago and at which Letourneau has worked) was at the open end of that "U", guiding the discussions, listing observations and suggestions. All five members of the City Council were present for the entire evening, which ended up lasting a little over four hours, including a short dinner break at 6:00. I left as they broke for dinner for Police Chief Rob Sharpnack's Town Hall at Vanguard University - more on that in another post.
Perkins began by showing the agenda for the meeting (above), and laid out some of the ground rules:
She then handed out a sheet for the participants - council and staffers - to use. They were asked to complete the following statement: "Costa Mesa would be an even better place if....."
BIOGRAPHICAL SUMMARY AND ANSWERS
Before answering that question each participant was asked to share some personal information about themselves - things the others may not know. Each gave a brief bit if information on themselves - I won't begin to address that here except to observe that there's a whole lot of San Gabriel Valley influence in the room - and included their response to the question.
John Stephens hoped that they could work on the challenges ahead without the divisiveness that has marked the recent past.
Tom Duarte hoped for a successful meeting that could develop teamwork.
Jim Righeimer's response almost made me choke. He said, "Costa Mesa would be better if it was not so political.", and compounded that by observing that we had handed over the treasury of the city to public employees. I simply must observe here that HE has politicized every action he's taken in this city since he arrived a decade ago. His view, apparently, is that if you disagree with him it MUST be political - not that his ideas are BAD ideas, or that his method of achieving his goals are BAD... nope, must be political.
Allan Mansoor spoke about a lack of responsiveness to his concerns. He looked for more fiscal responsibility, more paved streets and less crime. He looks for an improvement of the Quality of Life in the City.
Sandy Genis looked for a more responsive city government. She hoped to see the city upgraded without destroying the character of the city. She longed for the same old friendly Costa Mesa.
Katrina Foley spoke about the working families in the city, hoping to improve the communities without losing identities. She spoke of maintaining the quaintness of the city.
Tom Hatch hoped that we can continue to improve and change the community while respecting the history.
Tammy Letourneau hoped the council and staff will be able to work together toward common goals.
Following those presentations a few of the council members observed that any of those ideals could be adopted.
Perkins then led a discussion revolving around three statements:
1 - What I need from fellow council members is...
2 - What I need from staff is...
3 - What staff needs from council members is...
Each participant was asked to address those issues briefly. They responded with the following observations for Question #1:
- Genis - Establish norms - follow policies. Mutual respect and we're all afraid of humor.
- Foley - Not have intentions presumed. Have a sense of humor - which she observed, can be risky.
- Righeimer - The Brown Act is not human.
- Stephens - The council needs forgiveness going forward.
- Duarte - Mutual respect and communication collaboration.
- Mansoor - Politics is not funny.
- Righeimer, smiling, said he needs the staff available 24/7.
- Genis said the staff should REALLY listen to requests from the council, and to appreciate the city's uniqueness.
- Foley she looked for the staff's willingness to make recommendations based on their best professional opinion and to anticipate the expected consequences. She asked them to consider issues as though they lived in the city. "What would they want as residents?"
- Stephens said, "Don't let me screw up!"
- Mansoor agreed with Foley - that the staff should give an opinion even if the council doesn't want to hear it - and said they should "read our minds" - with a smile on his face.
- Mansoor said the council should "own our decisions - don't put everything off on staff". He also said they should be respectful of the staff's time and not monopolize it.
- Foley said the council should provide a "clarity of communications".
- Stephens said "Patience". He also said the expression of sincere appreciation for the work done.
- Hatch observed that serving five council members was like ordering one pizza and trying to find something that each one will like. It's their goal to equally support every council member.
- Stephens replied to that statement that it's virtually impossible to support equally simultaneously.
- Genis said sometimes you feel you have to push harder - kick and scream - to get some staff time.
- Foley observed that it goes back to political divisiveness, and spoke about a new process using Google Docs to help each council member be aware of the things the staff is working on for them.
- Righeimer observed that "we killed the 4 hour rule" - which surprised others, since that rule is still in effect. What he may have meant was that he and his majority just ignored it in the recent past.
- Foley observed that we need more part time staffers to help with the workload.
- Stephens suggested more communication among council members to help prioritize their staff time needs.
- Foley spoke of the "enormous" volume of community requests, stating it was just a matter of trust between the community and council.
- Righeimer acknowledged that sometimes he doesn't really need all the information that he requests if it's going to put a burden on the staff. Good grief!
- Hatch observed about the large number of community requests.
- Righeimer said Costa Mesa is unusual - that other cities don't have that number of community requests. His tone was consistent with his views that community activists are a nuisance - his actions trying to quash their participation demonstrated that very clearly.
- Hatch affirmed that if a council member asks for a follow-up to a community member's request, they - the staff - WILL followup.
- Mansoor said he wants to be as responsive to the public as possible. He also said he'd like to think we're better than other cities.
- Hatch said we have lots of new ideas and that they're trying to run a lean organization.
- Righeimer observed that Costa Mesa is NOT quaint - it's Newport Beach's backyard.
- Foley said we ARE unique in Orange County.
- Stephens observed that we have a unique mix of Residential, Heavy commercial and Industrial - a diversity that we should embrace, not vilify. He said he freaks out when he's in South County, where every community looks exactly the same.
- Hatch observed that the volume of work they do is much greater than in most cities.
- Righeimer cited the Brown Act as an impediment. (Big surprise there! He tries to work around it every chance he gets!)
- Foley observed televising Study Sessions would be a problem.
- Righeimer blamed the media and blogs (Uh, that would be little old me, thank you very much) for reporting what goes on. Good grief!
- Perkins observed that folks should have some humanity. "It's possible to disagree without being disagreeable."
- Perkins observed about the value of a professional, highly trained staff.
- Foley observed that we have to train them!
- Hatch said the employment environment is tough.
- Stephens suggested they all read the staff reports and give a heads-up to staffers if they expect to ask for clarification or more information - not to surprise them during meetings.
- Perkins spoke of introverts/extroverts and the need to develop staffers based on their individual strengths and weaknesses.
- Foley observed about the "no surprises rule".
Perkins had met with each of the participants earlier and prepared the following summation of information from those meetings, to compare to the comments and suggestions coming out of this group gathering. They were remarkably similar.
About this time - 6:00 p.m. - they broke for a lovely buffet meal and I headed for Vanguard University. I must observe, though, that - at least for the time I was present - I could see a change in tenor between the council members and staff. I saw the seeds of improvement. They apparently enjoyed the food and continued the discussions until after 8 p.m.
I subsequently spoke with community members who remained, and with Mayor Katrina Foley and others about the meeting. Foley told me they ended up with five priorities:
1 - The new Library/Lions Park project, which is underway.
2 - Creating a safe community, and just beyond more police officers, firefighters and code enforcement officers. They meant that EVERY city department has ways to contribute to making the city safer and those opportunities will be examined.
3 - Dealing with the problem of Homelessness in our city.
4 - Dealing with Sober Living Homes - some of which is related to the Homelessness issue. New revisions to the ordinances are pending and will be presented to the Planning Commission for review soon.
5 - Maintain Fiscal Responsibility, addressing all the elements that are involved.
WILL IT PAY OFF? WE'LL KNOW SOON...
So, we shall see if this exercise pays off. Will the apparent rancor between council members subside? Will future study sessions yield better decisions? Some have griped about the cost of the offsite venue. We're talking peanuts here - and being physically away from City Hall was essential for this process to have a chance to work. We'll know soon enough.