State

Turlock debates budget talks format

TURLOCK — Like its counterparts in other areas, the Turlock City Council has several tough budget discussions ahead. But here, the first debate involves just how to have those talks.

Most cities have their budget discussions at open meetings. Turlock followed that practice too. But last year, the council appointed a committee of Mayor John Lazar and Councilman Ted Howze, whose meetings were not open to the public.

City Attorney Phaedra Norton explained there are two kinds of committees: standing and ad hoc.

A standing committee is just that, and its meetings are subject to the Brown Act, the state's public meeting law. Its agendas must be posted, and the public must be allowed to attend and participate.

Ad hoc committees are temporary and created to accomplish a single purpose, such as last year's budget committee.

At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Lazar said he wanted to open the budget committee meetings as members discuss ways to patch a $3.5 million shortfall in the city's general fund.

"If I choose to participate, I want to have it open to the public," he said.

Councilwoman Mary Jackson also wanted the meetings open for public participation.

"I think many heads are better than one," she said.

Howze, who also will serve on the committee again, said he isn't opposed to conducting business in the public eye, but was concerned about wasting time and alarming residents.

"A lot of crazy ideas come out of those meetings that are ultimately rejected," Howze said.

He pointed out that occasionally unpredictable business needs — Howze is a veterinarian, Lazar a real estate agent — would delay meetings by an hour or more. "I'm a little hesitant to put the public on the hook for that. My preference would be to keep it like we've done before."

Councilman Kurt Spycher favored the ad hoc committee. Councilwoman Amy Bublak also liked the committee idea, but said, "If you guys want to do it public and open, I think that's wonderful."

Howze expressed concerns over whether allowing public participation would stretch two-hour meetings into three hours or more.

Council members asked Norton if they could have a committee meeting that people could watch but not participate in. She asked for some time to investigate.

On Thursday, Norton said she believed the council could do just that.

"For an ad hoc advisory committee, there is no statutory requirement to comply with the Brown Act," she said. "That does noes not preclude them from allowing the public to attend their meetings."

Norton said an ad hoc committee could also decide to take public comment during a meeting, though it isn't required to do so.

"They have the discretion to kind of do what they want," she said.

Lazar said Thursday that no meetings have been scheduled but that he plans to make them open.

"I think it's healthy to have sunshine on government," he said Tuesday. "I think (the) council would be understanding of that."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or 578-2343.

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