I arrived, promptly, at 11:50 am, last Wednesday, for the Escondido City Council Planning Workshop, that had been scheduled to begin at noon, according to the city’s calendar of events. Well, actually what started at noon was the lunch for the council and staff. So several of us sat around chatting and watching people eat. The group in the audience were great company, so I really had a pretty good time, and can’t complain too much.
The workshop was an entirely different affair from the last workshop I had attended. Then the mayor and council were all seated at one table. At this workshop, the four members present, Mayor Paul McNamara, Deputy Mayor Consuelo Martinez, and Council Members Olga Diaz and Mike Morasco were all seated at different tables, and each council member was surrounded by the city staff heads of various departments. Councilman John Masson had recently undergone surgery and was unable to attend. The agenda for the workshop was:
- Welcome and Introductions
- City Manager
- Workshop Facilitator
- City Manager’s Comments
- Review Workshop Objectives
- Highlights of City Accomplishments
- Councilmembers’ Visions of the Future
- City Council Priorities
- Moving Forward
I think McNamara put his finger on the usefulness of the day, with his comments near the end of the meeting, when he said he would have preferred to do without the second, third and fourth items, and concentrated on what the councilmembers wanted as priorities, and how the staff would judge the feasibility of each of their priorities. It was clear the council members did not have enough time to evaluate their long list of priorities and vote on them accordingly. They did vote, using a “dot” method to indicate what their favorite, and their next favorite, and the priorities that could be put aside, (think that had each had five colored paper sticker “dots” for each category, but not sure.) I couldn’t begin to tell you what was decided by that vote, since it wasn’t tallied.
In his remarks, City Manager Jeff Epp noted the history of the workshops, the first had been done without a mediator (workshop facilitator) and little had been accomplished due to political sparring. The use of the facilitator had eliminated that problem, and in ensuing workshops the council had been able to reach a consensus on their goals and priorities for the city.
The workshop followed a typical procedure wherein the facilitator, Dan Singer of Management Partners, would ask a question, then each group at the four tables, would reach a consensus on what their answer(s) would be. The first question was what factors help, and what factors hinder the successful running of the city. Not surprisingly all the tables came to the conclusion that clear communication between all parties involved was key, and the lack of that the greatest obstacle, and that there had to be cooperation, trust, and candor. It was clear that all these professionals were on the same page about everyone needing to be on the same page.
The next question called for each group to state their vision of an Escondido twenty years in the future. Martinez’ table was first to answer, envisioning a city that was welcoming of all cultures, treated people with dignity, economically robust, with public engagement, and a city with housing for all citizens. Diaz’ table also mentioned a city that treats all people with dignity and kindness, embracing all cultures and diversity, and a city that was visibly impressive—noting that not all gateways into the city were as attractive as they could be. She recommended that everyone present should visit the Friday night swap meets to see a really positive side of Escondido’s culture. McNamara noted that he had pretty much covered his vision in his State of the City, only mildly showing what may have been his impatience with the process, but reiterated it should be a unified city, with a good quality of life for all citizens, and a city that recognized and honored its historical roots, and agriculture. Morasco’s table envisioned all roads leading to Escondido, with a river park, a completed city that had annexed the unincorporated county “islands”, a city that preserved its agricultural and cultural heritage.
Before moving on to the city council priorities, Singer said that the council had to consider the context for such priorities including previous council directives, state and federal mandates, fiscal outlook, and workforce available. Then, Epp got up to invite all the heads of the city’s departments to give a brief summary of their departments’ achievements and challenges. Epp began by noting the chief challenge was money. Most of the department heads seconded his fiscal observation. Now for me, it was great to see and hear this group of obviously competent and professional city workers speak. I’ve often been impressed by the presentations they’ve made before the council, and they were equally impressive in what I think were unrehearsed comments.
Responding to the staffs’ comments, Diaz said that if they were having a problem with a state or federal regulation, or “unfunded mandate” to please let her know what specific regulation or mandate they were speaking about. That would allow her to address the lawmakers responsible for some assistance in mitigating the problem. She asked the staff to share their ideas about how the city could make money. Morasco also said the staff and council should look at how the city could enhance its income. Martinez thanked the staff for their comments, and noted that the public could help meet the city’s challenges, and she would always be open to hear new ideas. McNamara began his remarks by asking everyone in the room “are you busy?” Well, I think I’m the only one in the room who indicated that I was not particularly busy—so he was able to make his point. Every organization or company he had every worked with had the same problems, using the available resources in the most effective way. He said he felt that the city had made a mistake by cutting the funds available to advertise the city, noting the old saw about a business should advertise in good times, but really advertise in bad times. The city, like any productive organization, must have a “can do” attitude. At this point it was time for all these busy people to take a break.
For a long-time council observer, the difference in this council and the previous was readily apparent. The previous council had established four goals: “1) Economic Development: Ensure the long term vitality of Escondido’s local economy. 2) Fiscal Management: Approve a budget each year, as required by state law, that ensures the City’s fiscal stability. 3) Neighborhood improvement: Improve aesthetics, design, land use, services, and accessibility to support community needs. 4) Public Safety: Maintain a safe environment for Escondido with high quality emergency services.”
When the council came back to consider their priorities, Singer was a bit taken aback when the new council members agreed with Diaz’ conclusion that the previous council’s goals weren’t so much goals, but what the council was expected to do—that is the stated goals were what was expected of them to do in their job. Goals should be beyond that. They should define what the council would do to improve quality of life, and how the effectiveness of the council’s actions would be measured. McNamara said that it was a goal to be a “go to” city, it was a goal to be a unified Escondido, a goal to be economically vibrant, and a goal to improve the quality of life.
Singer explained that in speaking with all the members of the council, he had gotten the impression that they were all happy with the previous goals, and would continue with them, just, perhaps, adding to them. He had handed out a long list of “action items” that were new, ongoing, or completed. At the end, the council members were asked to consider and vote for those items they felt deserved first priority etc. using the “dot” method. The items varied from “upgrading the Kit Carson scooter park” to “a strong Climate Action Plan with true environmental and sustainability practices.”
But before that vote the council members added some more action items.
Diaz said she had been really pleased to work with the staff. This was the first time in her ten years in office that she had really had an opportunity to speak with staff other than the City Manager of City Attorney, and had always felt that approaching other staff was out of bounds. She looked forward to continuing this direct communication. One thing she would like to see was to begin to make the city staff more representative of Escondido’s demographics, making sure there were enough multi-lingual staff. She would like to see more of the staff live within the city. She would like to see more community policing.
Martinez suggested making Escondido the Soccer City in the region, since it was an extremely popular sport in Escondido, perhaps starting with something as simple as keeping the lights of the city’s sports fields on later. Morasco noted that Escondido was already considered the city of youth soccer. McNamara added that Escondido should be a city for all youth sports. Martinez added that she would like the city to develop a comprehensive housing plan for all income levels with some protection for renters.
Diaz also wanted to see the bike corridors completed, and the connectivity between neighborhoods in the city improved. She suggested allowing some of the city’s parkland be used for agriculture, such as a vineyard. She wanted to look into the city’s relationship with San Diego in its current agreement to treat Rancho Bernardo’s sewage. If Escondido’s sewage capacity was at its maximum, perhaps San Diego could be asked to provide more resources. She also noted that the new lines being installed under the Escondido Creek floodways included an empty tube—could not the city sell that to COX or another tech company?
Morasco observed that the Bear Valley Parkway project was not really complete (as stated on the prepared list of action items) and would not be complete until it was widened all the way south to Peet Lane. McNamara said Morasco might want to be careful about what he wished for—as he had learned from officials in the coastal communities that Hwy. 101 had become an alternate to Interstate 5. The coastal cities had solved that problem by putting in lots of stop signs along the 101.
McNamara suggested that before the council voted for their priorities, the staff be given time to analyze the priorities, and give the council some sense of how feasible each priority was. Martinez said the problem was there were so many priorities too much staff time would be demanded. At least if the voted, the staff would be able to focus their time a little better. Diaz had enjoyed spending time with staff, but felt that time was also needed to be spent with her colleagues to develop what their plan should be. She and her colleagues needed more time to digest all the information. She was glad to feel that she was able to approach all the staff for help. Morasco said that he, unlike Diaz, had always felt he could talk to the department heads, and had never felt that he would not be welcome to do so. He could see that asking the staff to help with a personal problem would not be appropriate, but to ask for help with city business was always something he had felt comfortable doing.
And so, without any real discussion on the merits of various action plan items, the members voted, but with the caveat that their votes would not be their final decision. So, stay tuned. Hopefully the new council’s goals and action plan will be developed soon.
It was interesting to me to see how differently Morasco and Diaz felt about being able to work with staff. I think part of it is the “good ole boy” network atmosphere, so much a part of the previous council it bubbled over onto the staff. For years, Diaz had been to lone voice to counter the “good ole boy” arguments for business, of business, and by business. It is not surprising that she felt a bit unwelcome in such an atmosphere.
There’s definitely a new atmosphere in the city hall now. It is much more of the people, by the people and for the people.