Lindsay Council in Group Therapy

A dysfunctional, financially embarrassed Lindsay City Council is finally getting some therapy, or at least part of it is, and no one should envy Lindsay Interim City Manager Bill Zigler his job.

If all went as planned, the majority of the Lindsay City Council sat down Tuesday morning with a facilitator, who also happens to be a therapist, for a four-hour session to set goals, define objectives for the city’s future and to establish a code of conduct for council members who recently just do not seem to be able to get along. But before that could happen, the five members of the Council spent about half an hour arguing with Zigler about whether someone was needed to smooth the process. In the end, a split Council decided, in a 3-2 vote, that it did.

“We’re hoping we can find greater unity,” Zigler said at a council meeting earlier this month. What he hoped Tuesday’s session would produce is a code of conduct for council members to follow at their meetings. “This is what we do, this is what we don’t do, as the Lindsay City Council.”

Disagreeing to Agree

The need for a tighter ship of state seems clear in the wake of loud, angry arguments between council members during public meetings. Add to that the sudden departure of City Manager Rich Wilkinson, with a subsequent severance payout the city could not afford, a recently settled wrongful termination lawsuit to a former Lindsay police officer with another large payout, ongoing investigations into the legality of council conduct, staff furloughs and continuing budget deficits that could paralyze city business. Yet, Zigler found himself repeatedly defending the need for an outside facilitator at Tuesday’s study and planning session, and for the session itself.

“I don’t see the need to hire this (facilitator) you know, because I’m OK whether all five of us do it (vote in favor of an agenda item), or three do it,” said Councilman Steve Mecum. “I’ve been the only one who didn’t want to do something, and I’m OK with that. It’s not personal to me.”

Mecum also voiced opposition to holding a special meeting to set goals, saying he preferred to hold such a session during a regularly scheduled meeting. He opposed paying the facilitator’s $1,000 fee, as well. The city attorney, however, pointed out that while he would not have to attend the study session, he would have to attend a council meeting held for the same purpose, eliminating any saving.

Absentee Councilman

Mecum, who also objected to the length of the meeting, missed eight regularly scheduled council meetings in 2015. He also failed to attend all of the council’s special meetings, including sessions on ethics and budget planning, and though he was appointed the city’s representative to the Tulare County Economic Development Committee, he attended none of their meetings last year.

Mayor Pro-Tem Rosaena Sanchez also said she might not be able to attend Tuesday’s study session because of her work schedule. The study session was in the works as early as November, and Zigler said he received only one response to an email asking about attendance.

Overcoming Dysfunction

Despite objections, Zigler again pressed his call for consensus and cooperation on the council. A singular voice is needed, he said, to make it possible for city staff to function well.

“The hope would be that we come up with something that represents all of you, that you can all get behind, and say, ‘Staff, this is the direction we want to go in,’ we salute you, and we go out and do it, because we don’t always get the same message,” he said. “You all have goals, but they’re not all the same goals, and there needs to be unity in that sense.”

Voicing his support for holding the study session, Councilman Danny Salinas said he hoped for a return to functionality.

“I was part of a council when we were doing things for the city,” he said. “I want to get back to that to that point, because we’re the voice of the city and when we have the same objectives, you saw what got done. Our projects need to get done.”

He also gave his firm opinion on
attendance.

“We took this oath as part of being a council member, and being a part of a council is having to be at these meetings,” Salinas said. “I feel that if we make any decisions that day (at the study session), the council has to abide by them.”

Group Therapy

While the council eventually agreed to hold the study session, the vote to do so was not without a last bit of contentiousness. As the council members took turns explaining their votes, Mecum continued to interrupt to repeat his objections.

“This kind of work, to be done right, it takes time,” Councilwoman Pam Kimball said, explaining her support. “I think it takes some privacy, being able for everybody to express themselves.”

This brought yet another response from Mecum, who questioned the qualifications of the facilitator, a Visalia-based therapist and consultant.

“What is this man?” Mecum asked. “Is he a mental health professional, or what is he?”

“He’s a psychologist, so, yeah, I guess so,” Zigler answered.

“If someone needs a psychologist,” Mecum said, “they can go on his own.”

Mecum then stopped the discussion to ask what he was voting on before dissenting. Sanchez also voted not to hold the study session.

Wolves at the Door

In the meantime, the city’s general fund is still deeply in the red, and its former finance director, Tamera Larkin, has retired, but not before giving a final midyear budget report. As of January 1, the city had taken $1,543,126 into its general fund; however, its expenses have topped that at $2,054,968.

Taking into account outstanding revenue, the city was already underwater by $491,792.

A plan to ask voters to increase the city’s sales tax to gap the budget shortfall was killed in December when Mecum and Sanchez refused to support it. No other plan to increase the city’s revenue has yet been put forth.

With money tight, the city is cutting corners everywhere it can. It recently decided to repair several of the city’s alleyways, but the work will be done in parts, with each project budgeted under $25,000 to avoid paying laborers higher prevailing wages. It’s also hoping to redirect state funds earmarked for planning the decontamination of one of the city’s wells.

“That’s our DBCP problem well,” Zigler said. The state has set a safety limit of 0.2 parts per million for the chemical. “We’re right now running 0.22, and we’ve been trending downward.”

The hope is the well will fall below the dangerous level on its own. The city is negotiating with the state to allow it to use the money for other water-related projects, such as drilling a test well to expand the city’s drought-shortened water supply.

Glimmers of Hope

There was a bit of bright financial news. The city’s annual outside audit was completed in just four days, as opposed to several weeks as in the past, and no major issues were found. A jovial Zigler called the result “a really, really big, important deal.”

Zigler may also have cobbled together a replacement for Larkin.

A former city finance director has applied for a part-time position with the city, and another candidate with qualifications in other fields is seeking the full-time finance position.

Zigler hopes to hire both, relying on the retiree to mentor the newcomer.

“I feel good about it,” he said. “Quality people. It will help us hit the ground running in 2016.”

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