Policy OK'd to help public place items before council

The City Council unanimously voted on Monday to give the public some control over what policies elected city officials vote on.

The rule extends the ability to put items on a council agenda to council members as well as anyone from the community.

Individuals from the public can place items for consideration before the council if two council members agree with the request. Ideas can be submitted in writing or during a council meeting.

"This is such a fundamental piece of our Democratic process within our city," said Councilwoman Mary-Michal Rawling. "I'm happy to support this as it's written. There might be a few bumps down the road, but we can address that.

"This makes us more transparent, open and better able to communicate with the public," she added.

The city started drafting the policy after a request from the council in January 2011, which followed a suggestion from legal staff to clarify the process for placing items on the agenda.

Before the change, it was up to the city manager to decide what went on the agenda, according to city officials.

The new policy allows council members to place an item on the agenda, but staff would be responsible only for analyzing the legal and financial implications if a majority of the council wanted to consider the idea.

Requests must be submitted more than a week prior to a meeting to appear on the meeting's agenda.

The previous policy created several "challenging" situations, especially on homeless and tenants' rights issues, said City Attorney Greg Diaz.

"The council would suggest something, but it put staff in a situation where, 'Do I put it on, or do I not put it on?' " he said.

The policy was reviewed by several community groups, including the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, Merced Lao Family Community, clients of Golden Valley Health Centers and the Political Science Students Association of UC Merced.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.