Until recently, Atherton had no formal process for a member of the council to add an item to a meeting agenda, leaving it up to the city manager to set the agenda. In March, a new policy was adopted requiring the approval of two council members before an issue could be placed before the entire council.
But now that's going to change. At the June 17 meeting, a divided City Council passed new rules requiring an additional step — not only does a pair of council members have to agree in order to propose an agenda item, but it will require a majority vote of the council to authorize the item's placement on a future meeting agenda.
So, if three or more members of the council vote against a proposed item, that item won't get on a meeting agenda and won't be discussed by the City Council.
The vote was 3-2, with Elizabeth Lewis and Charles Marsala opposed.
"Agenda items can be very dangerous if they're not approved by the council," said Councilman Jim Dobbie.
Getting something on a council meeting agenda is important because, under the state's open meeting law known as the Brown Act, an elected body can't take action on anything that hasn't been placed on an official agenda and published at least 72 hours in advance. The rules can be cumbersome, but they serve a purpose — to prevent the public from being blindsided by government decisions.
Mr. Marsala said that a lot of controversial issues faced by the town in the past few years would have benefited from a public airing, if only he had been allowed to get them on the council's agenda.
"If there is an issue that needs to be brought out and vented, then let that happen," he said. "I like the idea that if two council members want to bring something to the attention of the full council, (they can). I'm in favor of leaving things the way they are."
Mr. Dobbie said there could be "absolute chaos" if the rules weren't changed. If an issue is important, the council will approve hearing it, he said.
"If the council doesn't allow it, we'll have to take the flak from the public," said Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen.
She said that there is often a very good reason to delay discussion of a topic, such as waiting until a report about it is completed.
"I feel this is censorship," said Mr. Marsala.
The change in rules was likely triggered by last month's controversy over Mr. Marsala's idea for financing a new town hall. He proposed "selling" to the library the town's council chambers to expand the library, and using the proceeds from the sale for a new town hall building. The library has a reserve fund of several million dollars, whereas the town has little money for financing a new administrative building.
It wasn't only Mr. Marsala's idea, but the way it was presented, that generated a storm of criticism and led to the protest resignation of Joan Saunders, a member of the task force charged with getting a new town hall built.
Ironically, the library funds topic was put on the council agenda by a town committee, not via the policy that allowed a pair of council members to put forward an agenda item.
Ms. Lewis said she was truly at a loss as to why council members McKeithen and Dobbie proposed changing the rules, saying they are making the process "more cumbersome."
"We as council members are public servants; we aren't here to toot our own horns or grandstand," Ms. Lewis said.
Without comment, Mayor Jerry Carlson joined with Ms. McKeithen and Mr. Dobbie in voting to approve the tougher rules on placing items on council agendas.
"Council members McKeithen and Dobbie, and the mayor, are trying to censor and squash discussion in this town," said Ms. Lewis.