I missed that on Oct. 18, the City Council extended the contract of City Manager Leon Churchill through May 4, 2016.
His current deal was set to expire on May 4, 2012, before the City Council unanimously decided to give Churchill the thumbs up for four more years of service, barring unforeseen circumstances. The move was foreshadowed by the council’s 5-0 vote to have a contract drawn up by the city attorney’s office following a Sept. 6 closed session.
Judging by the vote that day, the extension was no surprise. What caught me off guard — as it did several locals who made their concerns known to me — was the item’s placement on the consent calendar of the Oct. 18 meeting.
The consent calendar is a list of items that can all be passed with one vote, without comment. Any council member or citizen can have a consent calendar item pulled for any reason, after which city staff will give a brief report and the matter will be opened for public and council discussion before it’s voted on individually.
That’s in contrast to an action item, in which something on the agenda is singularly set aside for comment and a staff report.
Since the Oct. 18 meeting, I’ve been asked why a contract extension for Tracy’s central public employee was not accorded its own discussion.
The answer I’ve received from various city officials is that it was a considered a “routine” item of business.
Churchill’s performance review was conducted in several closed sessions earlier in the year, closed-meeting agendas show. (Closed sessions are used to negotiate legal deals, consider lawsuits and conduct performance reviews, in keeping with California law. Agendas for those meetings are posted on the city’s website, along with agendas for regular meetings.)
Because the city manager’s contract was discussed in closed session and the council directed staff to draw up the contract in open session, it became a routine item, according to the Tracy city clerk’s office.
That assertion is backed up by rules governing City Council meetings, which read in part: “All items listed on the consent calendar are considered to be routine matters or consistent with previous City Council direction.”
According to city attorney Dan Sodergren, “There’s no strict definition of what’s considered routine,” though that typically includes items of business such as professional service agreements, grant certifications and simple contract amendments — for example, the one extending Churchill’s contract.
But who generally makes that determination, I asked.
“Usually, the city manager and city clerk determines what items should be on which calendar,” Sodergren said.
I personally thought the council was going to make a point of discussing the extension, especially after Mayor Brent Ives made it clear Sept. 6 that there would be a chance for the public to talk about the decision before a final vote.
There was, in fact, that chance. Just no set-aside time, no extra effort taken.
I guess I read the tea leaves wrong.
To be clear, the city has followed the letter of the law, dotted each “i” and crossed every “t.” Still, I can’t hide that I hoped for more.
City manager is arguably the most important position
in the city of Tracy, and a four-year commitment is nothing to sneeze at. I thought Churchill’s retention deserved more discussion.
This has nothing to do with Churchill’s job performance, by the way, which I think has been positive.
Notwithstanding a few bad calls — most notably, in retrospect, the hiring and tenure of former police Chief Janet Thiessen — Churchill has provided stable leadership and a consistent vision for Tracy. He is focused on economic growth and has so far guided the city through the financial minefield of the Great Recession.
That kind of help can be hard to find. If you doubt that, consult folks in Stockton, who are reaping the whirlwind of years of fiscal mismanagement and City Hall incompetence.
Elected officials who work with Churchill seem to recognize his value, too. When asked Sept. 6 why Churchill deserved four more years, one councilman told me flatly, “Because he’s so much better than what we had before,” a clear shot at one-time City Manager Dan Hobbs.
All that, however, is entirely beside the point.
Extending Churchill’s contract was a big enough deal that Tracy’s residents deserved an explicit, stand-alone time to hear the council’s reasoning behind the decision and offer their own critiques.
By putting that item on the consent calendar, the city called extending the contract of one of the most important people in our local government run-of-the-mill, instead of putting it front and center where it belonged.
I’m sorry — that’s anything but “routine.”
• Second Thoughts is an opinion column by editor Jon Mendelson. Share your thoughts at