Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | October 9, 2007

I love debates

Whether they address local or national races, I love debates. I especially enjoy participating on the panels that have questioned local school board and city council candidates in the the Dispatch-CMAP forums for the last several years.

This year, 10-minute open debate periods were added to the format. They were quite revealing.

For example, when Councilman Russ Valiquette asked candidate Perry Woodward questions and then interrupted Woodward’s attempts to answer, we learned a lot about both men.

I think that exchange hurt Valiquette, who reminded me of a school yard bully, and helped Woodward, who came across as passionate yet composed and not easily intimidated.

Whenever I watch a debate, I listen carefully to hear which candidates answer the questions that are asked, instead of using the tired but unfortunately effective politician’s trick of ignoring the particulars of a question.

For example, I never did hear Mayor Al Pinheiro “name two specific instances that [he] voted against a staff recommendation.”

The clear winner on the answer-the-question-that-was-asked score was former Councilman Bob Dillon. Here’s a typical Dillon response: “Can we just fix the damn sidewalks with a bond?”

There’s no obfuscation, no spin. I don’t always agree with Dillon’s conclusions, but I always know exactly where he stands on the issues. Dillon’s candor and common sense are refreshing.

The newly adopted and controversial compensation scheme for exempt, nonunion city workers came up repeatedly during the forum.

I was frustrated that the scheme’s defenders kept emphasizing the importance of treating these employees “fairly.”

Has any critic of the pay scheme advocating treating these employees unfairly? Of course not. Have they proposed unfair compensation schemes for exempt, nonunion employees? Of course not.

But by emphasizing fairness instead of addressing specific criticisms of the compensation policy, defenders of the policy spin the issue and imply that critics advocate unfair compensation policies. They also avoid answering tough, reasonable questions about the policy, like these:

• Why should Gilroy taxpayers tolerate a pay scheme with built-in conflicts of interest?

• Why should Gilroy taxpayers tolerate a pay scheme that fails to evaluate and reward exempt, nonunion employees based on job performance?

• Why should Gilroy taxpayers pay all exempt, nonunion employees as if they are all above average, instead of paying only the above-average exempt, nonunion employees above-average wages?

• Why should exempt, nonunion employees expect to earn 15 percent more than their highest-paid subordinates?

• Why should exempt, nonunion employees be treated like union employees, like a de facto bargaining unit?

And finally, I was surprised that no candidate who defended the compensation scheme and emphasized the importance of treating exempt, nonunion employees fairly mentioned the importance of treating Gilroy taxpayers – who fund these unrelated-to-job-performance, conflict-of-interest-laden, above-average salaries – fairly.

But one exchange on a topic important to me – open government – nearly made my head explode. It happened when Councilman Roland Velasco scolded Woodward, who advocates that Gilroy adopt a sunshine law, as being a “Johnny-come-lately.”

It took a lot of chutzpah for Velasco, a two-term councilman who hasn’t managed to implement a sunshine law in Gilroy in nearly eight years at the dais, to paint Woodward, who is seeking his first council term, as “a little Johnny-come-lately on this subject…”

My head ached at this point, but it didn’t yet feel as if dynamite had just been lit in my brain.

That happened when Velasco continued, “… because in closed session I had already started talking to the council about this topic.”

Bam! I thought my head would explode.

According to my non-lawyer’s understanding of the Brown Act, a discussion of a sunshine law is an illegal topic for closed session.

You’d hope that after eight long years as a councilmember, Velasco would intimately know and thoroughly understand these rules.

This is not difficult: The only valid topics for closed-session discussions are personnel and public security issues, pending litigation, and labor and real estate negotiations.

I can’t come up with any hypothetical circumstances in which it would be appropriate to discuss the merits of a sunshine law while hiding from the public.

But even more, I was simply mouth-agape stunned that the irony of discussing a sunshine law in closed session is apparently lost on Velasco. After all, Velasco trumpeted his closed-session discussion of an open-government ordinance during a candidate forum.

That speaks volumes.

And that’s why I love debates.

Update 10/10/07:

After this column was published in The Dispatch, Roland Velasco wrote a letter to the editor explaining that he misspoke when he said the sunshine law discussion took place in closed session.

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