Union representatives from the San Luis Obispo police and fire departments, citing concerns about elite special interests, have publicly withdrawn from a newly formed budget task force launched by City Manager Katie Lichtig.
The 32-member Financial Sustainability Task Force was handpicked by Lichtig, who was hired in December, to advise her on the city’s finances leading up to the beginning of the city’s two-year budget-setting process.
Erik Baskin, president of the San Luis Obispo City Firefighters Association, said the task force’s makeup doesn’t fairly represent the community.
“Unfortunately, when the selection process was completed and the participants were unveiled, the task force’s composition was far from the average citizens of San Luis Obispo and was comprised largely of elite special interests and insiders within the county — the majority of which are Chamber of Commerce past and present board members, CEOs, business owners, top management officials and city department heads — unreflective of the community at large,” Baskin wrote in a news release.
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Baskin said he was also concerned about the closed-door policy on the meetings, which prevented the media or other community members from attending the twice-monthly sessions.
Lichtig said the meetings were closed to allow members to speak freely.
“The reality is that there are some difficult conversations that need to be had about the cost of city services and employee costs,” Lichtig said. “I wanted to give the task force the opportunity to do that in an environment where they could raise ideas and concerns without the potential of it being in the newspaper.”
Members of the task force were selected based on recommendations from department heads, council members, the business community, former city officials and past participants in public input sessions, Lichtig said, adding that
57 percent of the task force members are San Luis Obispo residents.
“I attempted to do my best to get a broad-based representation of the community,” Lichtig said.
Baskin argues that the average tax-paying citizen deserves a voice on the task force.
“What is being lost is the average middle-class, working-class voice that makes up 75 percent of what San Luis Obispo is,” Baskin said.
A Tribune analysis of the list of 32 members shows that more than 40 percent represent the business community. Twenty-eight percent are city employees, and about 15 percent represent nonprofit organizations, including two members from Residents for Quality Neighborhoods, a community organization formed in 1990. Two additional members represent Cal Poly.
Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said that because the task force was appointed by the city manager and not the City Council, the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open-meeting law, does not apply.
“Why not open the meetings to the public?”Newton said. “It is a huge group of people, and the idea that conversations held in the room are going to or should be confidential is a joke. They get nothing by keeping the press out and probably harm the legitimacy of what this group is working to accomplish.”
Newton said that such committees are not uncommon.
“But anybody who is not invited will question whether or not the city manager is overrelying on counsel from the corporate guns rather than the people who live, work and pay taxes in the city,” he said.
Lichtig said that the budget process, similar to past years, will include a series of opportunities for the public to share its thoughts on the process.
Councilwoman Jan Marx said she supported Lichtig’s efforts and that the group was a fair representation of the community.
“We are going to have to look at budget cuts and efficiencies,” Marx said. “It is wise to have some backing if she has to make recommendations that are tough rather than sailing in from the outside and saying this is what has to be done.”
Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.
San Luis Obispo Financial Sustainability Task Force members
Kelly Griggs, ASI President