This evening, December 6, the Costa Mesa City Council will not only swear in three new members, but will vote on a “Mayor and City Council Staffing Plan” (New Business No. 1). While this may seem dull and innocuous, it could have profound implications for the city’s future.
The incoming mayor, Katrina Foley, wants to establish a full-time “Chief of Staff to the Mayor & City Council” along with three part time city council aides. The Chief of Staff would report to the mayor. The council aides would report to the Chief of Staff.
What would the Chief of Staff do?
The Chief of Staff would help with constituent services, policy issues, legislation, and events, functions now performed by existing staff. The Chief of Staff would work with the mayor and council members to establish goals and priorities. The Chief of Staff would also monitor the office budget and process checks.
Who assists council members now?
Now, one person provides direct, general support to all five city council members. She is supervised by professional staff. The proposal adds more personnel and changes how they’re managed.
By law, Costa Mesa has a “council-manager” form of government. Council members collectively supervise a professional city manager who, by law, supervises the rest of the staff with the exception of the City Attorney. (Government Code Sec. 34856)
With additional council members won’t we need additional staff?
Possibly, but this is more than double, jumping from one full time person to one full time plus three part timers, equivalent to two and a half full time people.
Won’t the new, directly elected mayor have more responsibilities and need more staff support?
No, the duties of the mayor have not changed. The mayor has the same powers and duties as any other member of the city council (Government Code Sec. 34903). Under the Costa Mesa Municipal Code, the mayor is also the “ceremonial head of government”, something all mayors have done for decades. Why does this now require a full time staff person?
The mayor would have four time the staff support provided to other council members (one full timer at 40 hr/week v. shared part timer at 20 hr./wk/2 council members = 10 hr./wk.). By what ordinance did the mayor suddenly get four times the duties and responsibility of the other council members?
Why does it matter?
Other than cost, about $220,000 per year, this proposal could lead to fundamental changes our city’s system of government.
Now, staff reports to the city manager who is accountable to ALL the council members. This proposal would add staff accountable to only the mayor. Even aides intended to help other council members would be accountable to the mayor.
Checks and balances are eliminated.
Mayoral staff would answer to no one but the mayor. For example, the Chief of staff would process check requests. A council member seeking re-imbursement for attending a conference would go to the Chief of Staff accountable to the mayor. The mayor, seeking re- imbursement for anything, whether a parking fee or a lavish vacation, would go to the Chief of Staff accountable to … the mayor.
Until now Costa Mesa mayors have been accountable to the council as a whole, providing a check on a mayor run amok. The Foley proposal forces council members to ask for assistance from staff accountable only to the mayor. This puts individual council members in subordinate positions, though by law they are supposed to be equal.
Transparency will be at risk.
As noted above, the Chief of Staff would work with the mayor and council members to set goals and priorities. Will this be on a one-to-one basis in a 5th floor office? This was previously done by the council as a group—in public.
The Chief of Staff would go over the agenda with each council member a week before a council meeting, before most council have had a chance to review relevant staff reports. So what’s the point? Could this become a formalized system for the Chief of Staff to transmit the mayor’s marching orders to individual council members. Would assistance from staff depend on compliance with the mayor’s wishes?
This opens the door to Brown Act violations.
Two council members would share each staff aide. Two aides conferring could represent four council members total, a quorum of the council. It would be easy for even inadvertent violations of the Brown Act to occur.
Is this a first step in eliminating the council-manager form of government in Costa Mesa?
The term “Chief of Staff” implies that there's an actual staff to be “chief” of. What other responsibilities, authority, and personnel would be added? What’s next?
The council-manager form of government run by professional staff arose in response to widespread corruption in cities run by political machines. Let’s not go back there.