Ryan McDonald

After vote, EPAC members wonder: What’s in a name?

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by Ryan McDonald

A new acronym emerged from Hermosa’s Council Chambers last week: “EPAB.” It took a couple rolls of the tongue for staff and elected officials to get used to the four letters — the hard “a” was the preferred pronunciation, like “tab” rather than “about” — that Councilmember Justin Massey offered as a shorthand for an “emergency preparedness advisory board.”

Naming, however, is likely among the easier acts needed for an EPAB, which could take the place of the city’s Emergency Preparedness Advisory Commission after the council’s 4-1 vote to retire the commission is finalized next month. Last week’s vote followed a recommendation by city staff, who cited limitations the commission format imposed on community engagement.

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By becoming one of the city’s informal “community advisory groups,” composed of residents volunteering their time, the new board could be more “nimble” than a formal commission bound by the strictures of California’s open meeting laws, said City Manager Suja Lowenthal.

“We believe it would be an opportunity for us to be more dynamic outside of a Brown Act body function, to serve as a volunteer group,” Lowenthal said.

But the decision frustrated several of the commissioners, who felt it sidelined their past efforts, and worried about the impact of the decision on the role appointed commissions play in civic life.

“Public administrators come and go, but the residents are the true bedrock of any community,” Commissioner Mike Detoy wrote. “As a professional firefighter, I believe removing a group whose passion is disaster preparedness is a mistake.”

The city formed the EPAC in 2007. Since that time, members have performed community assessments of emergency preparedness, finished the Emergency Operations Center, and rolled out a “Map Your Neighborhood” program, among other accomplishments. Last year, prompted by state and federal laws that impose growing and complex emergency preparedness obligations on municipalities, the City Council asked staff to examine the role of the commission. Then in January, the council and the commission held a joint study session on the subject. Leading up to the session, several commissioners expressed concern that staff were planning to “disband” the commission, and they urged the council not to do so.

During the session, Lowenthal said there were no plans to recommend that the council disband the commission. Instead, the meeting concluded with an agreement that the commission would focus more on community engagement while stepping away from other functions, such as grant seeking, that they had once served.

Councilmember Hany Fangary, the lone no vote last week, said that he was unable to reconcile the January meeting with staff’s recent recommendation.

“I didn’t see that this was where we were going. I didn’t see that this was where the council had provided input and direction. It sounds like we’re saying one thing in one meeting and another thing in another,” Fangary said.

Others, however, insisted that there was no inconsistency in voting to “retire” a body after promising not to “disband” it.

“I don’t view this as disbanding the group: this is a shift in format,” Massey said.

Massey’s point was more than rhetorical. Like others, he pointed to the Community Police Advisory Board as a model for how a reconstituted group would continue the commission’s mission of engaging community members on disaster preparedness, and said that all current commissioners would be welcome to apply.

Although some details remain to be worked out, the proposed advisory board would report to the city manager’s office, with Lowenthal relaying its activity to the public during council meetings. In an interview after the meeting, Al Benson, an EPAC commissioner and critic of last week’s decision, said he was skeptical that the advisory board would fill the same role the commission had. He worried that it would be “stocked with cheerleaders.”

“Everybody has biases. These people are going to be picked and approved by the City Manager and [Emergency Management Coordinator] Brandy [Villanueva],” Benson said.

Some members of the police advisory board, however, said they have had a very different experience. Resident Sheryl Main joined the Community Police Advisory Board when it formed in November 2015. Leading up to that, she had been a persistent critic of police efforts to contain alcohol-related problems in the city’s downtown, frequently introducing herself during public comment as a resident of “Bourbon Street West.”

Several months before joining, she ran into Chief Sharon Papa at a social function. The chief described the proposed board and asked her if she would be interested in joining.

“At first I laughed. I said, You know I’m the one who’s always up there criticizing you?” Main recalled. “But she said, That’s fine, I don’t want everyone agreeing with me, I want to hear other voices. That intrigued me. Normally, I would have said no, but that’s the kind of approach that interested me.”

It is unclear whether the advisory board format would be more or less effective at engaging the community on disaster preparedness issues, which both staff and commissioners described as the EPAC’s key function. Unlike commission meetings, which are regularly scheduled and documented for people to examine later, advisory board meetings can be private and held outside of a set schedule.

The council majority pointed out that members would be free to interact with the public on their own time. But it’s also possible that the board’s advisor-to-staff status could impair community buy-in to even the most well-intentioned efforts.

Geoff Hirsch, a local advocate on access issues for the elderly and the disabled, has concerns about the switch to the advisory board format. He said that the town’s graying population, and likely increase in the number of disabled persons, made outreach to these groups especially important. (Hirsch has previously applied for vacant spots on the Emergency Preparedness Advisory Commission, but was not appointed.)

Hirsch is a founding member of Access Hermosa, a “working group” formed by former City Manager Tom Bakaly. The group initially contained representatives from each of the city’s advisory commissions and members of city staff. But it came under attack as some of the ideas that began there reached the policy stage, with opponents describing the process as anti-democratic.

For example, Access Hermosa worked on a proposal, subsequently adopted by the City Council, to improve sidewalk accessibility by discouraging residents from parking in ways that blocked the sidewalk. Parking in this way is against the state vehicle code, and the city launched an educational campaign and a community-wide garage sale — to clear out space for people to fit their cars — before it began ticketing. But the accusations of backroom dealing tarnished the group, and the council limited staff time devoted to the group. Another Access Hermosa idea, to make sections of the Greenbelt accessible to people in wheelchairs or walkers by installing segments of decomposed granite or other material, generated even more backlash.

Hirsch insists that nothing sinister occurred, but acknowledges that some of the resistance to the group’s ideas was probably linked to the cloak-and-dagger reputation its opponents had managed to create.  

“One of the things we constantly heard is, Oh you guys meet in secret, and no one knows what you’re doing,” Hirsch said. The police advisory board faced similar criticism for being closed off from the public, including in the last City Council election, with some saying that the process allowed a particular set of residents to entrench their point of view.

The city’s website currently lists four “community advisory groups,” but the page appears not to have been updated recently: at least one person identified as a member has passed away, while others have moved out of state. Only Access Hermosa is identified as being open to the public.

Main said she was familiar with the cabal accusations, and was frustrated by what she described as a misunderstanding of what the group does. She acknowledged that the group benefited from not having its proceedings video recorded, which gave people more confidence to speak freely. But she said that people were overestimating how much influence the group has.

“We’re just there to kind of be a sounding board. We don’t make policy, though we do have some really interesting discussions,” Main said.

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