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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: A giant step backward in open government?

We’ve all been reading about a host of scandals -- either government (the Oracle case in Sacramento) or corporate (Enron, Global Crossing, World Com) . Perhaps we’ve been focusing on these larger issues when similar problems may exist right here in El Cerrito. Let me explain.

On February 19 current Financial Services Manager Brian Foster presented a long list of financial shortcomings of previous City management. In the middle of this list there was one that stood out due to its political, procedural and financial significance: “PRIOR CITY STAFF WAIVED THE BUSINESS LICENSE TAX FOR CERTAIN BUSINESSES AND CERTAIN CLASSES OF BUSINESS WITHOUT ANY AUTHORITY TO DO SO.”

The implications of this practice are significant in that by excusing certain classes of businesses STAFF had usurped the role of Council (it’s Council’s role ALONE to set policy), and staff did so without public disclosure and discussion, resulting in preferential treatment for some. The power to tax (and therefore to exempt from it) is one of the most powerful rights the public invests in its government; it did not grant that power to staff to exercise and in particular not without disclosure. As a result, a substantial amount of revenue was lost to the City; over a 10 year period it could have amounted to $400,000.
This loss occurred during at a time that El Cerrito was in serious financial straits. This practice also left the City vulnerable to potential accusations of corruption with a possibility of personal, political or financial gain by some.

Realizing that disclosure of essential facts is necessary for honest government, I repeatedly asked (starting on March 4) for Council to refer this matter to the Grand Jury for an independent and impartial examination of this issue. Despite a call by two Council members (Brusatori and Perka) to have this issue agendized for immediate discussion by Council, this issue festered for 5 months.

When finally agendized for the July 15 Council meeting, the analysis of this matter provided by staff was not forthcoming as to WHO, WHEN, WHY and HOW this practice happened. WHO “exempted” some businesses? WHEN did this “exemption” begin? WHY would staff do this “exemption” and risk discovery of their action for which they knew they did not have authority? HOW were the businesses to be “exempted” selected?

Current staff has been unresponsive and evasive in complying with a formal request for information under the California Public Records act, a distinct violation of the law. Why did dealing with this issue get delayed by the City for 5 months? Could some prominent members of the City’s business community be among those who didn’t pay this tax? The delay and faulty analysis provided by staff proves the need for an independent investigation, once again demonstrating that it is a bad idea to have the institution responsible for creating and committing the problem investigate itself. The temptation for cover-up and “circling the wagons” rather than being forthright is simply too strong.

A vote to forward this issue to the Grand Jury failed, with 2 votes in favor (Bruisatori, Perka), 2 opposed (Friedman, Moore) and Mayor Abelson abstaining. Councilman Friedman called the request for an independent investigation “a witch hunt, and a waste of money”; he’s in good company in that undoubtedly executives of WorldCom, Enron etc. probably view the investigation of their activities the same way. We have come to a sad state of affairs when an elected official tries to stifle a call for the truth by slandering members of the public. Equally interesting is Mayor Abelson’s characterization of the call for an independent investigation “political”. How so? Perhaps Mayor Abelson can explain why finding out what happened is political!

A democracy, of by and for the people, cannot function if decisions and facts (particularly those concerning taxes) are hidden from the electorate. This matter begs for an independent investigation, not a cover-up; only thus can trust in El Cerrito government be reestablished.

Steve Magyary, coordinator El Cerrito Citizens Alliance

Run dates: 2002-08-10 - 2002-08-24

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