SLO budget task force meetings now open to public, media

San Luis Obispo City Manager Katie Lichtig said Friday that she will allow the public and the media to attend meetings of a newly formed budget task force committee — reversing her earlier course.

Last week, union representatives from the San Luis Obispo police and fire departments publicly withdrew from the task force, citing concerns about elite special interests.

Lichtig, who was hired in December, handpicked the 32-member Financial Sustainability Task Force to advise her on the city finances leading up to the beginning of the city’s two-year budget-setting process.

Lichtig initially said the twice-monthly meetings were closed to allow members to speak freely. She did not elaborate Friday on why she decided to open the meetings to the public and the media, but wrote in an e-mail:

“After discussing this issue with the Task Force yesterday, the meetings will from now on be open to the public and press. I am hopeful that this change will eliminate an unnecessary distraction and refocus the Task Force on the important work of thinking creatively and constructively about our future financial sustainability.”

She wrote that she thought her original approach would give committee members “more opportunity for candid conversations … and a forum to ask difficult questions without fear that their words would appear in the newspaper or on TV.”

Erik Baskin, president of the San Luis Obispo City Firefighters Association, said Friday that Lichtig’s action is “a step in the right direction” but still doesn’t address the bigger issues that union representatives had brought to the city manager.

“We feel that the make-up of the committee is still an unbalanced majority of the elite special interests within the city,” he said, “not made up of average middle-class residents of San Luis Obispo.”

He is also concerned that the participation of some committee members could pose a conflict of interest because they have been hired to work on city projects in the past.

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. Two members represent Cal Poly.

Fifty-seven percent of the task force members live in San Luis Obispo.

Lichtig said in the statement Friday that she did not limit task force members to those living in San Luis Obispo because many community and business leaders have a deep commitment to the city’s success and “will bring a unique perspective on city finances that is important for me to hear.”