It was what Manteca City Councilman Dave Breitenbucher viewed as a reasonable and simple request.
He wanted to know how much the city was spending on work regarding remodeling the Civic Center to increase space and make it consumer friendly.
So he asked in a one-on-one meeting in October of 2020 with former City Manager Miranda Lutzow if he could have the information.
“Citizens were asking about how much the work was costing,” Breitenbucher recalled Thursday.
The city manager’s office’s response was blunt.
“Miranda said ‘no’ to my request,” Breitenbucher said, adding she inferred the councilman would use the information against her in some form.
Breitenbucher had been vocal about his belief Lutzow lacked experience to serve as the city manager. It is a point he made at public meetings when the council discussed elevating her from acting to interim, whether they needed to conduct a research for a permanent replacement, and again when the council extended Lutzow a full-time contract.
Breitenbucher then a month later in November 2020 made a public records request under California law.
In a written response the councilman was informed by Lutzow the “records” he was requesting — the amount of staff hours and money invested in the remodel — did not exist in a retrievable form. The reply indicated it would take a significant amount of time to generate the information he wanted. As such, it would be a burden for the finance department to compile when they had time-sensitive pressing issues to handle.
Breitenbucher next made the request for the information during council comments at a council meeting.
Staff responded by saying finding such information was too time consuming. No one else on the council commented or supported Breitenbucher in his request for the city hall remodel financial data. The city manager’s office at the time had painted Breitenbucher of being unreasonable in his request about how the public’s money was being spent and that he was essentially trying to undermine the office.
It wasn’t until after Lutzow abruptly resigned in February and Assistant City Manager Lisa Blackmon accepted a similar post in El Paso that Breitenbucher finally got the information he requested.
Breitenbucher made the request of Interim City Manager Mike Harden. Breitenbucher received the information within two weeks. At that point it had been almost seven months since Breitenbucher has first requested the information.
The difficulty Breitenbucher encountered securing information although rare has happened before in the past 30 years when council members viewed as being in the minority or at odds with the city management have made requests.
At the same time some council members — as the recent San Joaquin County Grand Jury report implied of Mayor Ben Cantu — are seen as making excessive requests of city staff time especially given the council only has the authority of acting as one on a majority vote to direct the city manager or city attorney.
They council does not have any direct oversight of any municipal staff behind those two positions given Manteca is a general law city. The city manager runs the day-to-day operations through department heads he or she hire.
At the same time — due to a lack of a formal policy — over the years confusion has arisen over council direction on issues discussed at council meetings. Council at times assumed they gave direction on an item even though they didn’t take a vote.
It is against that backdrop the City Council when they met Monday, Aug. 2, at 5:30 p.m. for a special meeting at the Civic Center, 1001 W. Center St., will consider adopting a policy regarding council direction and information requests.
In a memo from Harden and City Attorney David Nefouse frames the proposed policy as setting up a “formal procedure to process select Council requests of staff and/or departments, to ensure that such actions are taking place in public with a consensus of the Council. To the extent a request from Council to staff and/or department takes more than three hours of combined staff time, this request shall be approved in an open session by a majority of the City Council. Moreover, this policy reaffirms and acknowledges the general premise that direction to staff and/or departments goes through the City Manager, while noting that the City Council may still get basic information from City staff and/or departments without going through a formal process if the request is less than three hours of combined staff time.”
The proposed policy applies to all council members including the mayor.
*Makes it clear “council members and the mayor should not provide direction to city staff and/or to city department heads.”
*The city manager’s office will coordinate any necessary follow-up procedures.
*Department heads are responsible for ensuring an appropriate response to inquiries and advise the city manager’s office of such inquiries.
*The city manager’s office upon requests being generated at a council meeting will notify department heads of the necessary action to be taken as a result of council consensus and direction. A deadline will be established for each item by the city manager.
*A summary of follow-up items and their status will be maintained by the city manager’s office. The “council follow up list” will be distributed to department heads at the executive team meeting following a council meeting.
*Reports will be addressed to the city manager’s office in order to establish a central receiving point.
*In regards to direct requests made by council members, department heads will review the request and determine if it will take more than three hours. If that is the case, the council as a whole will decide whether to move forward with the request.
If any council member or the mayor violates the policy they may be subjected to censure.
And if the city manager or department heads violate the policy they may be subject to discipline consistent with city personnel rules and regulations.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email firstname.lastname@example.org