Open Government Called into Question
Residents expressed concern this week when they were barred from asking questions during the Good and Welfare portion of Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Karen McInnis, the treasurer of the West End Neighbors Civic Association, was inquiring about replacing the “Welcome” sign at the Nevada Avenue entrance to the city when she was prohibited by council President Scott Mandel from asking her question.
“This is for comments, not questions,” said Mandel, who was named the new city council president on the city’s six-month rotation basis. Before the Good and Welfare portion got started Tuesday, he said about it: “It’s really not set up for questions.”
McInnis said she was caught off guard by Mandel’s comments. “I was just asking about the sign, which looks terrible,” she said.
“I was a little surprised,” she said of not being allowed to ask the council a question.
McInnis said she was assured afterward that her question would be answered. “I feel very confident calling the department heads,” she said. “I always had a good response from them.”
But Larry Benowitz, a longtime politically active resident, was not so kind about the move. “I don’t like the idea of it,” said Benowitz, who ran for City Council in 2007. “The citizens have three minutes to address their government.”
Benowitz said the current administration campaigned under the promise of openness in government.
“This is a group I walked with every day to get them elected,” he added. “They campaigned on transparency. This is not transparency. Just because they get elected doesn’t mean we have to give up our right to address them.”
Jim Hennessy, a former City Council president, said that in 2004 his administration first permitted residents to ask questions during the Good and Welfare portion.
“I was really stunned what they did the other night,” said Hennessy. “I don’t know of any other municipality that does not allow questions to be asked of its administration.
“When you ask questions in public, you are getting elected officials on the record and you hold government to a higher standard and make them more accountable. What they are doing is not transparency in government. As far as I’m concerned, they took 10 steps backward.”
Some residents speculated that the current council was barring them from asking questions in order to speed up the meeting and to avoid being asked the same questions.
Gordon Tepper, a city spokesman, said the intention of providing the Good and Welfare session was never to allow residents to ask questions of the council. He said residents could ask their questions after the meeting is over or any other time during the week.
“Good and Welfare is not a question-and answer session,” said Tepper. “We’re following the code.”
Tepper objected to the criticism that the current administration is not open enough.
“This administration has been clearly more open and transparent than probably any other administration in the history of Long Beach,” Tepper said.
He added that this administration has held more open meetings with residents than any previous administration.
Good and Welfare used to take place only during the council’s first meeting of each month, but under the current administration it was expanded to both monthly meetings.
“It seems that the City Council is the victim of its own success,” McInnis said.
Councilman Mike Fagen said he that in his experience, especially with the previous administration, Good and Welfare provided an opportunity for taxpayers to have access to government by having comments and questions addressed. “They came to the meeting, addressed us and we responded to their questions," he said.