Aaron West, The Triplicate

Supervisor challenges how items are kept off the agenda

A recent disagreement about opening county supervisor meetings with a public prayer was the latest instance of an ongoing conflict between Del Norte County supervisors Roger Gitlin and David Finigan over getting items onto the Board of Supervisors' meeting agenda.

At the May 27 meeting, right before supervisors were about to discuss an ordinance concerning new fairground taxes, there was a Board disagreement about opening County Board meetings with a public prayer. Fast forward two weeks and now that disagreement has led to Board discord - accusations from one member that the chairman is abusing his position.

Gitlin, the District 1 supervisor, said that Finigan, by not allowing Gitlin's open prayer proposal to even be placed on the June 10 meeting agenda for action as he requested, is abusing his position as chairman. Also part of the abuse of power, Gitlin said, was Finigan's move to schedule a moment of silent reflection on the agenda at 8:30 a.m. before the supervisors' May 27 closed meeting session and pass it off as Board policy. Gitlin said such a move should be voted on by the Board, not placed on the agenda because of what one person on the Board wants.

"He's like an emperor," Gitlin said of Finigan. "We're a body of five, not a body of one."

Finigan said the 8:30 moment of reflection will be on the meeting agenda henceforth.

Gitlin, who has been keeping count, said this is the fourth time since Finigan has become chairman that Gitlin has been denied putting an issue on the agenda. Other supervisors said that they've also had items turned away from the agenda, but no one but Gitlin knew how many or had a problem with it.

"I've had things not put on the agenda," Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen said. "Stuff happens. [Items] end up changing after talking. You need to have those discussions with the chair. And sometimes it'll just be changed by talking to other supervisors. Usually communication is the big thing."

With this most recent incident, Gitlin - at the request of local clergymen, he said - had proposed that supervisors' meetings be opened with a nondenominational prayer. That's in accordance with Town of Greece v. Galloway, a recent controversial Supreme Court ruling that said public government meetings could be opened with not only nondenominational prayers, but explicitly Christian prayers.

As Gitlin told everyone during the meeting, the Supreme Court ruling has encouraged several counties in California - including Modoc and Siskiyou, as well as the city of Eureka - to start opening meetings with a public prayer, in some cases even a sectarian one. Gitlin spared the county the sectarian debate by opting to push for a more inclusive nondenominational prayer.

"I say let's make it nondenominational so it's inclusive," Gitlin said at the meeting.

After hearing from the opinions of 11 local clergymen and community members' - whom, Finigan pointed out, Gitlin had invited - Finigan said that a silent moment of reflection at 8:30 a.m. before the Board's closed session meeting is sufficient and declined to add Gitlin's prayer proposal to the next meeting's agenda, even after Gitlin objected and read the statute.

And this is where the problems begin, according to Gitlin.

Contrary to what the Triplicate mistakenly reported in May, a silent moment of reflection has never been on the agenda before. The May 27 meeting was the first time such an item had been scheduled. Gitlin said that this smelled fishy to him.

"I want to make it clear that in my year and a half on the Board we've never had this before," Gitlin said, referring to an agendized moment of reflection. "[Finigan] is the one who set this. We're a board of government and we vote by a consensus of opinion. We have not had that democratic process. How coincidental that with me making a request, it's suddenly been invented."

For his part, Finigan said that he scheduled a moment of silence to address Gitlin's request, who obviously felt strongly about praying before a meeting.

"It was the first time it was ever agendized," Finigan said, adding that sometimes after tragic events, like after the Sandy Hook shootings, the Board had called for a silent moment of reflection before a meeting. "[Gitlin] wanted it on the agenda, and I tried to diffuse the situation."

But Gitlin said it isn't up to Finigan to do that and that the scheduled moment of reflection should have been put to a vote. "Why is Finigan allowed to set policy without taking a vote on it?" he asked.

CAO Jay Sarina said that scheduling such an item is within the chairperson's purview. "That's perfectly within his right to do in informing the agenda," he said, adding that if a Board member wants to challenge the way something is done, they should bring it up in a meeting.

Supervisors Gerry Hemmingsen, Martha McClure and Mike Sullivan all said that even though they didn't know the moment of reflection was going to be on the agenda, they were fine with it taking place.

"I thought it was appropriate," McClure said. "I think it was an attempt to address [Gitlin's] request."

"I don't have a problem with it," Hemmingsen said.

At the heart of this situation, beyond the skirmish over prayer vs. a moment of reflection, is a certain statute in the county's policies and procedures manual. That would be statute 1.10.010 -which Gitlin recited at the May 27 meeting - that reads: "Any member of the Board may place an item on the agenda for action after first consulting with the chairperson of the Board."

Gitlin's take is that once a Board member consults with the chairperson in regard to an item that he or she wants placed on the agenda, then it should be placed on the agenda.

He said the only exception to that would be if a supervisor wanted the Board to take action on an item that was unlawful, like changing the drinking age from 21 to 16, for example.

However Finigan's interpretation is different. He said that once a supervisor consults with the chairperson about a proposed item, then the item, along with everything else that's set to go on the agenda, receives further scrutiny amid additional consultation between the chairperson, the county counsel, and the CAO, in what Finigan called an agenda review meeting. They finalize the agenda during that time, and then it's ready to be discussed, debated and deliberated over at the meeting.

"The chair sets the agenda, but through consultation with the CAO and the counsel," Finigan said. "The three of us sit down and set the agenda. They chime in whether or not it's appropriate and whether it's legal."

The agenda review meeting between Finigan, Sarina, and County Counsel Gretchen Stuhr is where proposed items may go to die. Finigan said an item typically wouldn't make it on the agenda if it requires further action or research by a county or state agency before it's presented in a meeting or if the item is already being addressed in a different venue.

This is what happened with a previous item that Gitlin had proposed be agendized for Board action earlier this year. Finigan said that item, which concerned signs being posted on roadways that declare Del Norte's respect for veterans, wasn't ready for the agenda because it needed to go through the transportation department first. Gitlin said he respectfully disagrees with that position. He said he didn't have a comment as to why Finigan denied his proposal.

"I can only tell you that instead of getting put on the agenda, it didn't get put on the agenda," he said.

The resolution regarding veterans signs was eventually approved by the Board at the May 27 meeting.

Additionally, Finigan said it's up to him to make sure that items proposed for the agenda are appropriate and relevant.

A different item Gitlin had wanted on the agenda in 2013, when Supervisor Mike Sullivan was chairman, fell victim to this caveat. That item involved a congratulatory letter that Gitlin wanted the Board to send the newly elected pope.

In the most recent incident, Finigan said, it was at the agenda review meeting where he scheduled the moment of reflection for 8:30 a.m. when the issue of public prayer came up for consideration.

The Del Norte County Administrative Policies and Procedures manual says this about the chairperson's duties in its Duties of Officers section: "The chairperson shall preside over, preserve order and decorum at, and announce each agenda item, or each agenda item number if on the consent agenda, before the Board at all Board meetings. Unless otherwise provided by these rules, the chairperson shall decide all questions of order and procedure, subject to appeal by any supervisor or the Board as a whole."

In regard to the discord in general, Finigan said that despite the disharmony the Board is productive, but issues like whether or not meetings should be opened with a silent or public prayer are distracting.

"The bottom line is we do a lot of good work and we do take care of business," Finigan said. "It's too bad we get distracted by issues not timely or under purview of the Board or that have anything to do with how the county functions."

Gitlin agreed that the Board does indeed get things done, but only when the proper process is followed.

"We get things done, there's no question about it. But they have to get on the agenda," he said. "I will not stop doing what I'm doing. ... I'm going to continue asking for items placed on the agenda. We want our day where we can be heard and respected, and if we lose fairly then I'm all right with that. I don't give up. I'm like a dog after a bone on the issues that are important."

The Board of Supervisors meets at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Flynn Administrative Center, 981 H St., Crescent City. Agendas and staff reports can be found atwww.countyofdelnorte.us.

Reach Aaron West at awest@triplicate.com.