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"Ghost voting" controversy just another farce

GeorgeByline

Go ahead, hit the road early. But you don’t get to vote.

That’s the message the Fresno City Council is sending itself in the wake of an investigative story from The Bee’s John Ellis on “ghost” voting in the Council Chamber.

It was an excellent public-service story. But I must admit I don’t understand what all the hullabaloo is about.

It all began with Ellis’ A-1 story in last Sunday’s Bee.

Ellis, The Bee’s City Hall reporter, noticed over the course of several weeks that three council members – Steve Brandau, Clint Olivier, Sal Quintero – had cast votes in open session on specific agenda items before the items had come up for public discussion.

The three publicly registered their votes with Council President Oliver Baines, then left the meeting. They didn’t return.

But their pre-registered votes stayed, becoming part of the official record once the specific agenda items in question were disposed of.

Ghost voting, proxy voting, absentee voting – these terms were used in Ellis’ story to described the situation.

Such voting was found to be perfectly legal. But, just to be on the safe side, City Attorney Doug Sloan was preparing legislation to confirm the legitimacy of this voting method.

Ellis took the story to another level. He talked to a handful of experts in democracy. They said ghost voting by Fresno City Council members is a betrayal of The People.

The first quote in any investigative story is the money quote, the quote that sets up the story’s theme and signals to the reader how to interpret all that follows.

I loved Ellis’ money quote:

“’I am stunned,’ said Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College in the Bay Area. ‘This seems wildly inappropriate and not what voters have in mind when they elect (council members) to vote on their behalf.’”

The quote made me think of Dennis Pollock, my old reporter buddy at The Bee. Whenever Dennis came across such overwrought chatter, he’d say in a melodramatic stage whisper, “Oh, the humanity!”

I mean, take a close look at that money quote. Three guys in Fresno cast a single ghost vote each, and it staggers the soul of this veteran observer of American politics. Their decision isn’t merely wrong, it’s “wildly” wrong. Menlo College is way up there in Atherton, but Michelson knows all about the minds of voters in Districts 2 (Brandau), 5 (Quintero) and 7 (Olivier).

I hope Michelson’s loved ones are keeping her away from the Golden Gate Bridge.

But, hysteria aside, the biggest problem with Michelson’s quote was that it didn’t tell me what I needed to know, which is the story’s essence, its hook as we say in journalism.

Ideally, a reporter chasing this story wants a money quote along these lines:

“’Brandau, Quintero and Olivier broke every federal, state and local law known to man,’ said FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. ‘They’re headed to Alcatraz.’”

No mystery there. But what exactly did Brandau, Olivier and Quintero do that was so terrible?

And make no mistake, two of three have concluded they’re in big trouble. The Bee’s Rory Appleton reported Tuesday that Olivier and Brandau are co-sponsoring a bill (to be debated at the Jan. 7 meeting) that would ban the very same ghost voting technique that, in December, they had viewed as both practical to their needs and faithful to their pledge to constituents.

Ellis in his Sunday story got experts such as Michelson to tell us all about what they view as the trio’s sin. It has to do with democracy and voting.

It’s that simple. Everyone in America instinctively knows there’s a right way to vote and there’s a wrong way to vote. Our democracy thrives with the former and dies with the latter. And those three knuckleheads on the Fresno City Council had stepped into “death to democracy” territory with their ghost voting.

Somebody said ghost voting violates the “spirit” of the state’s open meeting law. Somebody said a ghost vote might backfire on the council member if the issue at hand is amended while he’s away. Somebody said the missing council member shouldn’t be allowed to vote if he hasn’t first been on the dais listening to The People give their public testimony on the issue.

As noted above, all that reporting worked its magic on Brandau and Olivier. Ghost voting on the Fresno City Council is deader than a doornail.

But none of that reporting convinced me. I read the Ellis and Appleton stories. I said to myself: So what?

That’s why I met Brandau on Tuesday morning at the Starbucks at Herndon and Palm avenues. I wanted to hear from one of the main guys why ghost voting is a corrupt way of voting and destructive to democracy.

Brandau was kind enough to take it slow and easy on me.

“In the past, you’ve been able to say, ‘I’m going to go home. I’m going to register a vote,’” Brandau said. “I did that one time. Clint did that one time. I believe Sal did that one time. It’s where you cast an absentee vote.

“To me, it’s not been a problem. But we’re going to do away with that opportunity.”

Brandau paused. We weren’t drinking or eating anything. He’d been to a breakfast meeting early that morning with his Tea Party colleagues. Brandau said he’s resigning from the local Tea Party’s board of directors and ending his work on Tea Party committees. He said the problem is lack of time, not in-house ideological disputes.

“In my opinion, (ghost voting) is not a big deal,” Brandau said. “However, it’s my belief that in today’s American government we suffer from transparency issues a lot of the time. People are disconnected from the government.

“For that reason, and because of the public debate since these absentee votes have become an issue to the public, I’ve heard the voices. People are concerned. They don’t like it. They think it’s a way of taking opportunities they don’t think should exist. For the transparency reasons I mentioned, and to be clear with the public, we should change this policy.”

The Ellis story had discussed transparency, hence an expert’s reference to the state Open Meeting Law.

I don’t get it. The departing council member says in a clear voice in open session what his vote is to be on a specific issue yet to be discussed. What could be more transparent than that?

Brandau answered by comparing the circumstances of his ghost vote some weeks ago to the circumstances of Olivier’s ghost vote of Dec. 17.

“I went up to Council President Baines and said, ‘Oliver, I’m sick. I’ve got to go home. I don’t want to be sick all the way through Christmas. But on this vote coming up, if it stays the way it is recommended by the staff – the staff recommended approval – I want to register a yes vote.’

“See what I did there? I said, ‘If it stays the same.’ What happens if the item is amended? The guy who registers (prior to leaving) a yes vote might not know what he’s voting on. The public expects you to know what you’re voting on. It’s like Nancy Pelosi said: ‘We’ve got to pass this to know what’s in it.’ That’s very dangerous in the Republican world. We don’t like that.”

Council Member Lee Brand at the Dec. 17 meeting showed another way a ghost vote could go haywire. The issue on which Olivier had pre-registered his vote concerned a complex mid-year spending plan of some $8 million. Brand had suggested that maybe some of Olivier’s District 7 infrastructure money could be transferred to his District 6 infrastructure account.

It was said as a joke – council members guard their infrastructure money with their lives. But the point was sharp: An absent council member can’t protect his turf.

Brandau gave another example of the way a ghost vote can cause mischief.

Let’s say a council member takes the Brandau precaution. This council member tells the council president that his “yes” ghost vote is to be deemed valid only if the bill proceeds through debate exactly as staff has recommended. If there are amendments, then the ghost vote is to be “no” or “absent.”

Brandau said a council opponent of this absentee council member could make an inconsequential amendment to the proposal – for example, taking a $4,000,000 spending plan and making it a $4,000,005 spending plan. That would trigger the absentee council member’s conditions, turning a “yes” ghost vote into perhaps a “no” ghost vote.

Brandau summed things up for me.

“In the real world, people just want to know that we know what we’re voting on,” Brandau said.

Yet, even after reading Ellis’ story a second time, and listening to Brandau for a good half-hour, I don’t get it.

Take this notion that an enemy council member would “tweak” a proposal in order to turn an absentee council member’s “yes” ghost vote into a “no” ghost vote.

Such an amendment would be unnecessary if the enemy council member sensed he already had the four votes to defeat the proposal. And if the enemy council member sensed he was in the minority, then his motion to tweak the proposal would go down to defeat – the absentee council member’s allies would know the game being played.

And I don’t understand why it’s better for democracy to disenfranchise the approximately 73,000 Fresnans who live in the absentee council member’s district than to allow ghost voting. If the district’s residents don’t like ghost voting, they’ll tell their council member in person (phone, letter, email, etc.) or at the ballot box.

My point: The issue “to ghost vote or not to ghost vote” should be settled at the personal level of representative-constituent and not by some top-down legislative edict.

No one disputes that casting a vote is extremely important.

It’s important at the grassroots level. There was a time when vast swaths of the American public – women, minorities, 18- to 20-year-olds, for example – were legally denied the vote. We’re constantly expanding the franchise. For instance, there are states that allow convicted felons to vote. The mentally ill have considerable voting rights. There’s a good chance undocumented immigrants will soon be voting in federal elections in California.

We’re also constantly changing the way people vote, and how they are registered to vote. I won’t bore you with a Tocqueville quote. It’s sufficient to say that he and many other observers have noted that once Americans get on the path of expanding the franchise, there’s no stopping the process. It goes on forever because the very nature of the democratic ideal demands it.

And casting a vote is extremely important at the legislative level. The people vote to select people – their neighbors – to represent them in law-making bodies of a size that makes a huge democracy work. Life is full of contingencies. If a lawmaker feels the need to cast a ghost vote so the people he represents have a voice at City Hall, then let him do it. As Walter Lippmann said, democracy isn’t fragile. If the ghost-voting council member has exceeded his authority in the eyes of his constituents, they’ll let him know the old-fashioned way. But the legislature and so-called “experts” have no business withholding the ghost-voting option from those constituencies that like it (or, at the least, tolerate it).

I was told by Brandau and others that ghost voting shows contempt for The People. That’s because people come to the Council Chamber’s public microphone to voice their opinions (three-minute maximum) on issues. These opinions might sway a council member’s decision. A council member casting a ghost vote doesn’t have the benefit of these last-minute public comments – therefore democracy is short-changed.

Fair enough.

But that works two ways.

Here’s how things work at the Fresno City Council. The president identifies which issue on the agenda is to be considered next. A staff member explains what’s in the staff report and the administration’s recommended action. The president asks if there’s anyone in the audience who wants to comment. The people come to the public microphone one by one. When The People have spoken, the president allows council debate. Then comes the vote.

But often the item is successfully amended before the vote.

Does the president then take the amended proposal back to the public for three minutes of comment by anyone so inclined?

No.

In other words, the Fresno City Council routinely does to the Council Chamber audience exactly what the experts say Brandau, Olivier and Quintero did with their solitary ghost votes. The council betrays The People. The audience is forced to watch its elected representatives vote on proposals (amended proposals) on which they have had zero opportunity to voice their eloquent (and perhaps mind-changing) opinions.

You say those amendments are minor changes? Who are you to say what’s minor or major when it comes to The People’s democratic business?

Bottom line: The Fresno City Council and all other legislative bodies pick and choose how much opinion from The People they’ll stomach. Brandau, Olivier and Quintero with their ghost votes were well within the democratic norm.

I called Council Member Brand on Tuesday. My aim was to ask if the public would ever be told about the council’s closed-door job reviews of City Attorney Doug Sloan and City Clerk Yvonne Spence.

The fact that these annual reviews are taking place can be found on recent council agendas. My interest isn’t in the performance reviews themselves. I merely think the public has a right to know if the council, which hires and fires the city attorney and city clerk, has decided to retain these taxpayer-funded employees and, if so, what kind of raise (if any) they’re getting. This last point seems especially important in light of the recent Bonusgate controversy.

However, my chat with Brand quickly moved into ghost-voting territory. Brand said he’s dead set against ghost voting. He summed up his position thus: “It’s a work-ethic issue. You’re paid to show up.”

I said: “But why do you have to codify a ban on ghost voting?”

Brand said the item going before the council on Jan. 7 isn’t an ordinance. He said what’s being proposed is simply a rule involving council procedure, a rule that can be changed in a heartbeat with four votes.

“It’s a rule like what we do when we elect a new council president,” Brand said.

And that’s when I finally got it. That’s when I realized this ghost-voting crisis and all the tear-jerking laments about democracy are just a bunch of hooey.

All Fresnans chomping at the bit to attend the Jan. 7 meeting and give the council an earful for its ghost-voting habits should get to the Council Chamber at the 8:30 a.m. starting time.

One of the first items out the chute will be the election of a new council president.

When Fresno’s strong-mayor form of government went live in January 1997, the first order of business was electing a council president.

Now, you might think electing a council president is no big deal. But the task is mandated by the City Charter.

“Commencing in 1997 on the first (Thursday) after the first Monday in January, the Council shall elect a President of the Council from among its members to serve for a one-year term,” the Charter says.

The People obviously think it’s a big deal or they wouldn’t have put such wording in their City Charter.

Sal Quintero, the same man now serving District 5, was the first council president in the strong-mayor government. It took vote after vote after vote. I can’t remember how many, but the total was in double digits.

There was good reason for that council to fight over its leader. The council president doesn’t have the power of a Speaker of the House or a Senate Majority Leader, but the position is important to the smooth functioning of our municipal government. The council president runs council meetings, works with the city manager to determine council agendas and keeps busy representing the council at official and ceremonial functions. The job now pays a bit more than $70,000 annually, compared to $65,000 for a regular council member.

Henry R. Perea, now a Fresno County supervisor, was elected council president in two straight years in the early 2000s. That angered some council members. It wasn’t too much later that the council voted to automatically rotate the job of council president by district.

District 2’s Brandau was president in 2014. District 3’s Baines is the current president. District 4’s Paul Caprioglio will become president on Jan. 7. District 5’s Quintero will become acting president on Jan. 7 – the acting president is always the following year’s president.

What the good people of Fresno are going to see on the morning of Jan. 7 is an absolute farce of democracy. The charter says the new president has to be elected. So, someone on Jan. 7 will go through the charade of nominating Caprioglio as president and Quintero as acting president. Someone will second those nominations. Then Baines will call for the vote. The votes will be 7-0 for Caprioglio and 7-0 for Quintero. Both winners will have faced zero competition.

And, of course, this being a legislative body that pays somber lip service to the trappings of democracy, Baines before the vote almost certainly will open the public microphone to audience comment. After all, Jane Doe may want three minutes to explain with Churchillian eloquence why The People’s legislative body in 2016 should be headed by, say, District 1’s Esmeralda Soria rather than Caprioglio. And John Doe might follow his wife to the microphone to pitch the wisdom of making Olivier the president.

And all that eloquence will be so much drivel. That’s because the non-transparent, Brown Act-violating fix is in. The City Charter may say “elect,” but the City Council some ten years ago made a type of ghost vote that renders the Charter (in this situation) irrelevant. No matter what The People say via email, telephone, letter or public comment, the choice of council president for 2016 has already been made. The seven council members voting on this issue have all the free will of the Seven Stepford Spouses.

And then, after this farce is over, the council will take up the Anti-Ghost-Voting legislation of Olivier and Brandau. And there will be all this chatter from the dais about the sacredness of The People’s democracy and The People’s Brown Act and The People’s mind-changing eloquence at the public microphone and The People’s perpetual right to transparency and integrity in their city government.

And then Caprioglio, his grip on the presidential gavel made possible by a rigged election, will gravely ask for the vote on the Olivier-Brandau ghost-busting, democracy-saving legislation. There might even be cheers from the dais when it passes.

You know, on second thought, Professor Melissa Michelson of Menlo College is right. Fresno City Hall politics has made me wild with frustration, as well. I think I’ll join her on that railing of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Oh, the humanity!

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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