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Riverside committee makes slow progress toward city-sized goals

Thanks to pressing deadlines, potential ballot measures that the Riverside City Charter Review Committee was first asked to deliberate years ago may not see a ballot until 2024.

The highest priority for November’s election – the General Fund Transfer (GFT).

Riverside voters will be asked if they want to continue a century-old practice of transferring the city’s utility revenues to the general fund, which translates today as $40 million annually.

The committee is also responsible to come up with how the city’s charter may or may not describe the voting or veto powers of the city’s mayor. They were also asked to deliberate the wording used to describe a potential new role for a senior staff member called a city accountability officer. This is described as a position that would provide a checks-and-balances system in city government which would include overseeing the city attorney and city manager.

In order to come up with the language to describe what the GFT does and does not do on the charter, the Charter Review Committee needed more time and less on their plate with a looming, early-June deadline.

With a 4-3 approval in last week’s city council meeting, council members narrowly granted six more months to the Charter Review Committee to deliberate the two other potential amendments to the charter.

What is the Charter Review Committee?

Our city’s political foundation is structured by a charter, which can only be amended by the will of the voters. The amendments they vote on are written by a Charter Review Committee and approved by city council.

In December 2018, former Mayor Rusty Bailey and the city council appointed a 15-person committee to review the city’s charter and make recommendations to the council for six potential amendments to be placed on the November 2020 ballot.

Tom Evans, former board president of the Western Municipal Water District, served on that committee. He said they met once a month in different community centers for an average of three hours each time. “We wanted to be as accessible as possible and not have everyone come to city hall,” he said. Although, very few constituents showed up.

The council received the Charter Review Committee’s final report, which recommended six proposed amendments. Four recommendations were placed on the November 2020 ballot, while two were referred back to a new ad hoc Charter Review Committee, the current committee.

The two items put on the new committee’s plate– The potential mayoral vote and the potential new role of a city accountability officer (CAO), now for consideration for placement on the November 2021 ballot.

“We did a good job, we made a definitive recommendation,” Evans said. “The council didn’t agree with it and it’s their authority to not agree with whatever the committee comes up with, but the new committee seemed to have started from scratch.”

Then in early 2021, the council needed the Charter Review Committee to consider the language used for a potential ballot measure regarding the GFT. Ongoing litigation against the city prompted an urgent request that the committee produce their recommendation before it can be approved as a ballot measure in July.

How long is too long?

As the recommendations for their previous two tasks must be placed on a municipal election ballot, one that will not reappear until 2024, the committee’s other amendment proposals will not be seen by voters until then.

Three city council members in the May 11 council meeting voiced that it seemed unnecessary for the committee to spend more time on the two issues that were already deliberated by a previous committee.

Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson was interviewed by the committee earlier this year regarding the mayoral vote and spoke to the council when she heard the committee’s original priorities would have to wait until 2024.

“I know this is in regard to the mayoral vote and that’s not where I’m coming from but … It has been discussed ad nauseam,” she said in last week’s meeting. “I think it was clear when I spoke to them that they had formulated a recommendation at that time … It’s kind of mind-boggling.”

Councilmember Andy Melendrez also said he was confused as to why the committee needed more time, but said if that was what they were asking for the council could give it.

The committee was granted six more months to produce proposals for their other two issues, granting the space they asked to finish the language for the GFT recommendation.

Inching forward

Councilmember Ronaldo Fierro mentioned in last week’s city council meeting that he worries about keeping the issues of a potential mayoral vote and CAO out in the air for too long, but he likes to find compromises when possible.

“These people are members of the community who have jobs and have families and this is a free service they’re doing for the city,” he said. “A general request to have a little more time seems reasonable.”

Malissa McKeith, vice chair of the charter review committee, said that for the committee, the potential role of the CAO is really the most critical issue under their consideration behind the GFT.

“It would create an additional check,” she said. “Senior staff are not subject to the ethics committee. A CAO might also serve to mediate disputes before litigation and serve as the chair of the ethics committee.”

As for the issue of the possible mayoral vote or veto power, McKeith said a member of the committee is actually drafting a proposal. “A proposal that clarifies the mayor can veto any action including a line item veto of the budget. That issue will be discussed after the GFT goes to council in July,” McKeith said.

The committee’s next meeting will be tomorrow at 5 p.m. to discuss progress made toward the GFT recommendation.