Langley council votes to clip wings of new finance committee
March 23, 2011 · 2:16 PM
LANGLEY — If there was any lingering doubt that an outsider has taken a seat on the Langley City Council, it was erased Monday night.
In a meeting that at one point hovered on the verge of a shouting match, city council members attempted to abolish a new oversight committee chaired by the council’s newest member, Hal Seligson, before the committee could schedule its first meeting.
Monday night’s session, the most acrimonious in recent memory, followed a special workshop last week where some on the council said they wanted to pull the plug on the committee, which the council unanimously voted to create less than a month ago.
Councilman Seligson pressed his council colleagues at this week’s meeting to say, straight up, if his committee on financial and personnel matters would continue to exist.
“Push comes to shove. Are you now seeking to rescind, to repeal the committee that you approved?” Seligson asked.
“As far as I’m concerned, there is a committee on the books and I would like to proceed to recruit membership and do the business of the city: to protect the taxpayers money, and to do things like to make sure that our personnel practices are positive,” he said. “So I think the first question is, does the committee exist or does it get repealed?”
Other council members said that while the new committee had worthy goals, they continued to stress that the scope of the undertaking was too large, and it didn’t seem to fit the mold of a standing committee.
Councilwoman Fran Abel repeated her earlier concerns that the committee looked more like a mix of advisory bodies than the ad hoc committee it was supposed to be. Previous complaints along those lines have centered on Seligson’s vow to open his committee meetings to the public, record them and give the public advance notice of the meetings.
“I think it’s going to create problems because it’s a hybrid,” Abel said.
Abel called the committee “a fishing expedition,” and took a shot at Seligson’s experience, adding that the work was too much for one council member.
“Frankly, we have a chair being proposed for a committee that’s going to exist for a year, who hasn’t even been through a Langley budget process,” she said. “That leaves big holes in knowledge that other members of this council could fill very adequately.”
Abel, and others on the council, suggested the formation of a series of ad hoc committees rather than the one Seligson had proposed.
“To give it all to one person, is to me, a real mistake when we have lots of different parts ... of finance and personnel, that are very varied,” Abel said. “We have five people on the council that could participate in that if we had ad hoc committees doing the work, instead of sewing it all up in one year with one council person and the same citizens.”
Abel asked her fellow council members to reverse the earlier decision to create the committee.
Seligson wondered if part of the problem was the openness that he was advocating.
Abel said the council had been clear; it wanted ad hoc committees that focus on research, nothing else.
“It’s not a committee to provide recommendations at all, that’s never what was intended. It’s not an oversight committee,” she said.
It wasn’t meetings open to the public that she opposed, Abel said.
“I oppose requiring that we go jumping through all sorts of things to advertise them and to record them and to publish them. Have you calculated the cost of what you are proposing?” Abel asked.
Seligson tried to answer that he had, but Abel started to talk over him when he tried to point out that he had also donated his council salary back to the city to cover any costs. Their voices rose to nearly a shout.
“I have not seen the cost estimate of what this would cost the city in staff time and in publishing, and in recording these meetings,” Abel said. “I think it needs a budget consideration from the council.”
“Have you requested any budget considerations from any other ad hoc committees?” Seligson asked.
“The other ad hoc committees are not doing what you are proposing,” she said. “It’s huge.”
Seligson said the priorities for his committee have been set out in a systematic series of steps, with one following the other. He said the council seemed more focused on process, rather than actually getting work done.
And he noted that at last week’s workshop, council members had said they wanted his committee to limit its role to a review of the city’s personnel policy manual. It was work he’d already started.
“In my short couple-of-days review of our policy and procedure manual as it pertains to personnel, we are in violation of a number of aspects of state law as it stands right now,” he said.
“And this has been in existence since the 1990s and no one has taken a look at it at all.”
Seligson again stressed that people seemed more willing to talk about work than doing it.
“I didn’t fall out of the cabbage patch truck yesterday,” he said.
Seligson recalled his time on the Planning Advisory Board, when few of those in front of him were on the council. He remembered his press for a plan to protect the city’s drinking water, something the state had ordered compliance on two years earlier.
“I was told, ‘You want one, you write one.’”
He did, and 18 months later, it was rewritten by another who volunteered to do it.
“I’m impatient. We’re talking process here,” Seligson said.
Others on the council, however, again said his committee was too far-reaching, but said they were willing to let it proceed if the committee would sunset within 90 days after the review of the personnel manual is complete.
Seligson relented, and the council agreed to keep the committee in place with those restrictions.
“I can see the handwriting on the wall,” Seligson said, noting there were four votes lined up against him.