The question of whether rookie City Councilman Jesse Petrilla will be able to participate in budget discussions for Rancho Santa Margarita while he is at Fort Knox for 3-1/2 months with the California Army National Guard dominated city council discussion on Wednesday.
Petrilla learned two days earlier that he is to report to the Kentucky military facility on Feb. 22, and remain through June 16. He will miss the next six meetings; that’s two meetings more than he has attended in his term.
A lieutenant who will be trained to lead a tank command, Petrilla has five years remaining on his six-year commitment to the reserves.
Understandably, he desires to continue his civic duty through technological means such as teleconferencing.
The other four council members’ concern is whether would be A) available to participate in council meetings via teleconference while B) complying with the Brown Act—working from a room open to the public at Fort Knox or elsewhere—and C) being available to participate in budget meetings apart from council meetings.
Petrilla said he will be gone for 115 days. Though most training will be in a school or study environment, he said 30 days will be in field tests. He admitted there could be a conflict with council meetings but estimated probably no more than two.
However, veteran council members were less concerned about his missing council meetings and more concerned about budget meetings, a process that begins in May and takes place separately from council meetings. The 2011-12 fiscal year budget is scheduled to be approved on June 22—the first meeting following Petrilla’s return.
“The most important decision any council member has to make is the adoption of the budget,” Mayor Tony Beall said. “It’s a painstaking, very detailed process, and literally covers every penny this city spends over the year. We’ve got PowerPoint and spreadsheet presentations going on that are being changed on the fly. . . .
“From a technological standpoint it presents real obstacles. Not having been through it, you can’t imagine the level of detail. It’s an impressive process and it’s a lot. Be careful what you wish for. It’s not something I’d want to participate in over a telephone.”
Greg Simonian, attorney for the city, called the situation unique. Though his research wasn’t complete he believed there were three available options:
- Leave Petrilla’s chair empty and continue with a four-person council;
- Appoint a temporary council member to replace Petrilla in his absence;
- Allow Petrilla to continue to participate in his governance role through teleconferencing.
If the last option is chosen, a number of elements would need to be satisfied to accommodate the open meeting Brown Act.
“A member of the public has to be able to sit next to council member Petrilla and be able to participate in the meetings as if he were here,” Simonian said. “If there’s a Brown Act violation there’s potential embarrassment to the entire city. . . .
"Will Fort Knox allow a council meeting with the door open?”
Petrilla says yes, but his colleagues want proof that the Army will support the councilman’s involvement 100 percent.
Holloway suggested the military might have its own designs on Petrilla’s time and simply not allow him the freedom, access or availability to participate in West Coast meetings on East Coast time. “I would only feel comfortable if we have a letter from whoever needs to write a letter [representing the military] who says it’s OK,” he said. “I’m concerned about them saying you can’t do this at all.”
Petrilla didn’t seem enthused about trying to get an official OK.
“The military is even slower than other government entities when it comes to paperwork,” Petrilla said, adding that he would be back from duty by the time a letter was received.
“I’ll only support it if you can make all the budget meetings,” Holloway responded. “It’s not fair to us to go backward if you miss something. . . . They may be able to answer something very quickly.
“If you miss two budget meetings, that’s just not fair to the public through no fault of your own. In terms of serving the needs of the public, missing a budget meeting is not the same as missing a city council meeting.”