Gotta be a better way

The Board of Supervisors considered approving a controversial new ordinance this week, but we stopped short of deciding the issue. After 2 failed votes, we calendared it for further consideration in October. Why?

Even though all of us believe some kind of legislative action is necessary to address a serious lack of affordable housing that’s contributed to a significant outmigration of our youth and workforce, the devil was in the details. And within the constraints of the way we conduct Board matters, we couldn’t quite reach agreement on how the policy should address the issue.

Affordable housing advocates pleaded with us to go ahead and adopt the proposed ordinance, warts and all. After 4 years of committee meetings and considerable time and emotion invested, they just wanted us to pass it – amend it later, they said. They understand our present “3 votes on a Tuesday” system all too well.

“If there is no new information, why are we still talking about the ordinance?” asked Beetle Barbour, housing resources director at the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency. “You don’t have to believe anybody, you just have to look at the ordinance.”

Beetle was partially right. There was no new information contained in the proposed ordinance, but there was something new last Tuesday. For the first time, the Board of Supervisors – all 5 of us – discussed it amongst ourselves. We looked for the place of agreement, but time just flat ran out and our decision-making tradition proved too strong to overcome. Will that be the case in October? I hope not.

Under the Brown Act in California, no more than 2 supervisors may discuss any item we will be voting on except in a properly-noticed public meeting. The Brown Act was created to protect the public from backroom deals and rightfully so. But it also has the effect of discouraging thoughtful collaboration and limits the amount of time the Board has to work through the complicated details of important policies. Both of those effects combine and make coming to agreement for best outcomes on controversial issues much more difficult and sometimes impossible.

So after 4 years of work by advocates and detractors , a 10-page document that had fairly wide support turned into 20 pages that many of the original authors can’t fully endorse. The Inclusionary Ordinance became if not a multi-headed hydra, at the very least difficult to recognize.

Those who worked on the issue for years were understandably disappointed last Tuesday. The Board was too. It doesn’t make sense that the body charged with governing the affairs of the County and its residents is relegated to wait for legislation to arrive with no mechanism for official input on its development and progress. To be fair, two Board members were involved in the drafting of the proposed policy, but that wasn’t enough.

The system in Tuolumne County favors building alliances between competing interests – 3 votes on Tuesday. It doesn’t favor working together to come up with positive and innovative solutions to very real problems. That’s a pity.

I know, I’m idealistic. But let’s start figuring out how better to use the existing system within the limitations of the Brown Act and let’s do it soon. I’m convinced there’s a better way.

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