The Atwater City Council may soon hold only one meeting a month, making it the only city in Merced County to cut down on the number of council meetings.
In a 3-2 vote, the City Council on Monday approved the first reading of an ordinance that reduces the council meetings from two to one, as well as combines three city commissions into one “super” commission. Councilmen Joe and Jeff Rivero voted against the proposal.
The item will be brought back to the City Council on Aug. 25 for a second reading and possible adoption. If it passes, it will go into effect 30 days later.
City administrators say the efforts will save the cash-strapped city $21,000 by reducing staffing costs, but residents are angry at what they view as a lack of accessibility to their government.
“I think it’s a horrible idea because someone who wants to have an on-the-record comment will only have one time a month to do that,” said Atwater resident Jim Price, who’s also running for mayor.
Atwater City Manager Frank Pietro said staff from the city clerk’s office, some of whom are paid hourly, stay until 10 or 11 p.m. preparing agenda packets for City Council meetings. Since 2008, the city has reduced its workforce by 42 percent, cutting the number of positions from 134 to 78, and city employees take furloughs every Friday.
“We’re looking at every area we can cut and we can’t cut any more employees,” Pietro said. “Right now with the budget that we just passed, it’s very tight. If we can save a dollar here or there, we’re going to do that.”
If the ordinance is adopted, Pietro said holding one meeting a month would be temporary until April 30, 2015. The months of November and December already have only one meeting because of the holidays, he added.
But Councilman Jeff Rivero wasn’t convinced, calling the idea a “dictatorship” because he believes it takes people’s rights away. “The citizens of Atwater are having less opportunities to have their voices heard,” Rivero said during the meeting.
Others expressed concerns that cramming two meetings into one will result in extra-long council meetings. With one less meeting to speak on issues, some residents pushed to have the public comment period extended from three minutes to five minutes, but Mayor Joan Faul didn’t agree.
“Anything after three minutes, people go to sleep and they’re not listening to these people,” the mayor said. “Five minutes is a long time and most of the time they repeat things.”
However, the mayor said she will suggest that an additional comment period of three minutes be added to the end of the council meeting to address concerns.
The City Council also took the first step to combine the Parks and Recreation, Planning and Traffic commissions into one at the suggestion of Councilman Larry Bergman. Each commission has five seats, but the proposed ordinance would reduce the spots to a total of seven. City Council members would interview and select the commissioners.
“We’re trying to stay ahead of the red in the upcoming budget,” Bergman said. “I’m trying to come up with out-of-the-box ways to reduce costs.”
Jim Murphy, chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission, said he is “outraged” by the plan. “I see it as they don’t care what the citizens say, they don’t want to hear it or they are hiding something,” Murphy said.
Planning Commissioner Fred Warchol agreed. “It’s a slap in the face to the citizens of Atwater when they eliminate three commissions and take away three opportunities for citizens to express their feelings to city officials,” he said.
Other commissioners, such as Eric Lee, said some meetings last less than 20 minutes and combining them into one “super” commission would be a more effective use of staff time.
Ronald Daugherty, chairman of the Traffic Commission, said he doesn’t mind the idea of serving on a “super” commission and considering items that are not related to traffic.
“I think I have enough knowledge to vote on other items,” he said. “I don’t see any problem with it, other than they need to have a broad spectrum of experience to fill that commission.”