Local leaders are deescalating tensions after the cancellation of a joint School Board and City Council meeting this week resulted in assertions by the city manager’s office that left School Board President Steve Ferguson feeling “dehumanized.”
The joint meeting was initially set for Tuesday and would have been attended by all members of the School Board and the Council to discuss shared business. But no School Board members were in attendance. Instead, the Board met for their regular meeting on Thursday. Rather than the planned meeting, what Burbank residents got was a nearly blank agenda and an explanation from the city attorney and city manager describing the circumstances of the cancellation.
“It became apparent that we followed different procedures. We were unable to agree on a few items for setting the agenda,” said City Attorney Joe McDougall Tuesday. “The School Board, rather than to have a disagreement, elected not to participate in the joint meeting.”
City Manager Justin Hess said Tuesday, “It was our understanding from the superintendent that it was the School Board president who decided to cancel.”
Over the hourlong discussion, the two did not disclose which agenda item led to the disagreement and eventual cancellation.
Then, at the Thursday Board meeting, and in an interview with the Leader, Ferguson painted a very different picture of events. He told the Leader that it was the city manager who “dodged opportunities to work with the Board.”
The agenda item in question, Ferguson revealed Thursday, was a resolution on LGBTQ+ inclusion which would only seek to codify existing state law on LGBTQ+ rights as local law. Ferguson pointed out that he clearly had no intention of obstructing the item, as he described himself as “the first LGBTQ+ elected official in this town.”
He then described what unfolded in the conversation between City Council and City Hall leaders during the Tuesday meeting.
“Tuesday night, when all of my colleagues at one point or another chose to diminish my light, I was dehumanized. I never seek to hurt people,” said Ferguson, in an emotional address to the public. “It wasn’t our City Council. Let me just tell you. … it was city staff.”
“They cited process. I cited principles. Mayor Anthony and I were on the phone three separate times working our best to try to build an agenda with consensus. I would think the [LGBTQ+] agenda item would be, as the city attorney referenced, of shared mutual interest,” Ferguson said.
Instead, according to Ferguson, city officials came back to him proposing a “ceremonial proclamation” instead of a resolution voted on by elected officials, which would have actual legal consequences. He viewed this as having his rights and the rights of other LGBTQ+ individuals “sidelined,” saying it wouldn’t affect real change.
“The ultimate decision was that Justin [Hess] wasn’t going to put the item on the agenda,” Ferguson told the Leader. “This council was the first council that lit City Hall in rainbow colors, right? They recognize every LGBTQ+ organization under the sun. Yet, here, it was when we put values into language that then needed a vote that the city manager’s office became beyond evasive.
“Most people don’t know anything. Most people are listening to Joe McDougall and have no idea why that horrible School Board president cancelled the meeting. And it was all because of calculated decision-making from the city manager and from the city attorney to make me take the fall for, frankly, a poor staff effort. OK, but that’s scapegoating a gay man for this, and what a tragedy that is,” he added.
Burbank officials disputed this claim following an inquiry from the Leader, citing a breakdown in procedure and nothing more.
“The city was not presented with a joint resolution until after the joint agenda was ready for publication,” the Burbank public information office told the Leader Friday. “At that point there was insufficient time for review and comment in accordance with the city’s established rules and procedures. As such, both the city manager and city attorney recommended the resolution be addressed by the mayor or president of the School Board under future agenda items, in accordance with established practice. Instead, the school district elected to withdraw from participation.”
This statement is consistent with city staff’s explanation of events during the Council meeting. On Tuesday, McDougall referenced that same agenda item, without specifically naming it.
“There was at least one item that didn’t seem to follow the Council’s normal procedure for adding items,” said McDougall. “When it was first presented, I didn’t believe that it was within the city’s jurisdiction. … that changed, we didn’t have time to review. We gave a path forward, but it was too little too late for the school district.”
Cancelling a meeting in this fashion is unprecedented, according to city officials.
“It’s never really come to the point where one member cancels the meeting,” said McDougall, referencing the city’s assertion that Ferguson pulled out of the night’s proceedings. “We have not had a circumstance in the 18 plus years I’ve worked here where a council member has cancelled a meeting for the body.”
Councilwoman Zizette Mullins echoed this sentiment. “Since 2012 — since I was the city clerk — I have never ever had any issues or seen any issues with putting together the joint agenda with the School Board,” she said Tuesday.
City officials refused to comment on specifics including allegations of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination or why city staff felt the agenda item was initially “outside of the city’s jurisdiction.”
Ferguson told the Leader that the city manager’s office overstepped a boundary by dictating which agenda items would appear before the Council, a responsibility which he views should be delegated to the Council and School Board as elected officials. He said that it is inappropriate for city executives to actively pull an item already endorsed by elected officials.
Ferguson told the Leader that he felt Hess was allowing his own personal agenda to interfere with city business.
“I’ve known Justin [Hess] for a long time. I’ve known Justin to be a good person. But this is the first time I’m seeing his values.” He added that, while Hess was at a conference during the agenda-setting meeting, he was working with Assistant City Manager Judy Wilke, who was acting on Hess’ behalf.
“Giving [Hess] and [Wilke] the benefit of the doubt, even if their intentions were not intended to be discriminatory, their efforts are now widely seen as such and, in the interest of this community, these civil servants need to remove themselves from the policy dialogue and allow those who have built a public mandate to meet, debate and deliberate as voters intended,” Ferguson told the Leader.
“It’s a war on class. It’s a war on equity. It’s a war on the new Burbank.”
Ferguson called for the City Council to order a special meeting of the two bodies that includes the resolution of LGBTQ+ rights.
“Leaders like [Mayor] Konstantine Anthony and [Vice Mayor] Nick Schultz, who seek to uphold the constitution at higher levels of our government, need to demonstrate their ability to secure equity and democracy at the local level by removing this barrier,” Ferguson said.
The city maintains that it was a simple issue of procedure and timing. Burbank city business is typically a joint effort between the city manager, city attorney and the Council, which has a two-step procedure for scheduling agenda items. They traditionally all have a part in setting the Council agendas. The city has a specific window of time before which agendas can be posted and said that time ran out.
Mayor Konstantine Anthony, who Ferguson said was “beyond communicative and was trying to make things happen” during the agenda-setting discussions, said “the School Board doesn’t have the same rigid process” as the city for setting agendas, and that “it came down to timing that prevented us from finding an amenable solution.”
There was no statement from Anthony during the Tuesday meeting that any staff member had been actively attempting to prevent an agenda item from being added to the meeting’s proceedings.
Vice Mayor Nick Schultz attended the Thursday Board meeting and made a statement aimed at clearing up misinformation and building consensus with the Board in the spirit of cooperation. He was at the meeting in his individual capacity and was not authorized to speak for the Council.
“Since that [City Council] meeting, regrettably, some in our community have propagated a narrative that our institutions either cannot or will not work together, and in my opinion there can be nothing further from the truth,” said Schultz. “I am here tonight to state unequivocally that I am invested in a collaborative and supportive relationship with this Board.”
He endorsed a plan that would allow the two bodies to meet before the end of the year. BUSD Superintendent John Paramo said that he was “100% confident another meeting would be scheduled.”
Schultz thanked Paramo, Ferguson and Vice President Emily Weisburg for maintaining open lines of communication and said he would like to see biannual meetings of the two bodies during summer and winter school breaks.
“In my heart and in my mind, we as a body on the Council are committed to continuing to build a relationship of honesty, and open communication and trust, and yes, mutual respect.”
First published in the November 18 print issue of the Burbank Leader.