Between binge-watching some Coen Brothers’ dark comedies, I’ve been perusing videos of state legislative hearings and city council meetings. The acting’s not as good in the political proceedings, but there are moments of hilarity that, at times, rival what comes out of Hollywood.

For instance, San Clemente political consultant and activist Jim Bieber sent along a video from a council meeting last summer, where he testified on behalf of one of my favorite reform ideas: district elections. In San Clemente and some other cities, council members are elected at-large, rather than by voters within a smaller district. Because it’s so expensive to run citywide races, this leads to the outsize influence of special interests who fund campaigns.

Bieber calmly explained this proposal. He used a graphic illustrating how poorly the current system serves most city residents. It was a map with red dots showing that four council members live in one small area. I wouldn’t say that Councilman Tim Brown’s overheated reaction to this presentation was worthy of “The Big Lebowski,” but it offered a darkly entertaining glimpse of the self-regard one occasionally finds among local officials.

“I’m kind of a throwback,” Brown harrumphed. “I believe in propriety and also in a little bit of privacy. It’s kind of a funny thing. Because, you know, it happens to be my wife’s at home alone right now and I’m in this meeting just like your wife is probably at home or somewhere else alone right now and you’re in this meeting … What’s your address, Mr. Bieber?”

Bieber’s response was priceless: He stated his own home address in a matter-of-fact manner. (He also noted that the disclosure forms Brown filed for office, which include his address, are public record). It wasn’t easy to pinpoint anyone’s address on the blurry map, but Brown told me it was easy for people to figure out where he lives based on Bieber’s handout.

Brown’s theatrics mainly served the purpose of evading the public-policy proposal before the council.

No doubt, the reason for the councilman’s prickly reaction is that Bieber is the kind of resident who is the scourge of elected officials — and the joy of journalists — everywhere. He pays close attention to the council. He files public records requests, shows up at meetings and challenges council members. He speaks his mind.

Brown argues that Bieber’s efforts basically are payback for the council’s efforts 18 months ago to regulate short-term rentals, and complained that Bieber’s “pursuit of his political objectives have been invasive.” Bieber said the short-term-rental debate was his first introduction into the heavy-handed way the council behaves, which propelled him into activism.

Bieber’s differences with the City Council come back to a central theme. He alleges that city officials have used “city resources for political purposes.” Then “they compound their actions by withholding records from public records requests,” he contends. Brown denies that the city used public resources that way, but won’t comment on the pending records-related legal case.

In my view, the broader issue is that the council seems to forget that it works for the public — something best illustrated by members’ cloddish efforts to pass that tax hike.

City officials supported Measure OO last November, which would have boosted the tax on hotel rooms and short-term rentals. The measure lost by a mere nine votes. Apparently as oblivious to election rules as it is to public records matters, the council requested a recount. But cities cannot ask for recounts; only private citizens can. Cities cannot spend taxpayer dollars on this sort of thing, as San Clemente attempted to do.

So City Manager James Makshanoff requested the recount as a private citizen — and did so on his official city letterhead. That’s a boneheaded move that might be worthy of the characters in a Coen Brothers movie. The Orange County Registrar of Voters informed the city otherwise. And Bieber last month filed a lawsuit alleging that the city withheld public records from him — including emails that were produced on city officials’ private email accounts.

He filed the lawsuit shortly after a California Supreme Court decision ruling that public records are, indeed, the public’s records, even if they are produced on personal accounts. The court wisely recognized that if officials could evade open-records laws simply by using their own Gmail, then the California Public Records Act would be largely meaningless. Devious officials would have found a simple way to hide what they were doing.

Bieber said he knew he wasn’t getting all the records he requested because he had already received 19 of the missing emails in a separate public records request from the Registrar of Voters. The city claimed that it withheld the records because it would “disrupt future deliberations.”

Watching the proceedings reinforces the comedic nature of the city government there. But if a few more residents in all our cities spent as much time watching council proceedings as they do Netflix reruns, I’m guessing we’d have a better-functioning representative democracy.

Image by Jon Bilous

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