A divided Arroyo Grande City Council voted 3-2 in favor of a new communications policy that would require members to keep each other in the loop when sending out official correspondence.
The new policy, passed at a May 24 meeting, comes after a prolonged controversy caused by Mayor Jim Hill, who sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) without the council’s knowledge earlier this year.
“This is a transparency issue,” Councilmember Jim Guthrie told members of the audience shortly before the vote.
The new policy states that all councilmembers and the mayor must copy the full council, the city manager, and the city attorney on all correspondence using city letterhead or written in their official capacity as elected officials. The policy also notes that official city correspondence should reflect official positions taken by the council.
“While members who may disagree with a position are free to prepare correspondence on such issues as private citizens, city letterhead, official council title, and staff support should not be utilized,” the policy reads. “In addition, city letterhead and staff support cannot be utilized for any personal or political purposes.”
Hill butted heads with some council members after they discovered his letter to a FTC commissioner in February. In the letter, Hill identified himself as the mayor and expressed concerns over Albertsons’ rumored interest in a vacant grocery store location in the city. Hill worried that Albertsons would violate a previous FTC order and noted that a local company owned by two of his supporters, Spencer’s Fresh Markets, was trying to lease the location.
New Times obtained a copy of Hill’s letter from the FTC. It wasn’t written on official city letterhead, but did include Hill’s city of Arroyo Grande business card.
Hill drew fire from councilmembers like Mayor Pro-Tem Barbara Harmon, who chided him in an email for sending the letter without notifying the council. At the meeting, Guthrie expressed similar concerns over the letter.
“We may or may not have agreed, but we didn’t have a chance to respond,” he said.
Some Arroyo Grande residents shared similar worries at the meeting.
“[The letter] bothered me at the time. … I felt it wasn’t being fair to the other council members,” Arroyo Grande resident Michael Drees told Hill.
Hill’s supporters were also in attendance and spoke to defend him. Beatrice Spencer said she believed that Hill was being attacked, and the controversy over the letter was politically motivated.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that we’re in an election year,” Spencer said.
Councilmember Tim Brown, who along with Hill voted against the new policy, echoed a similar sentiment, calling discussion of the policy a “waste of time.”
“This is much ado about nothing in a political year,” Brown said.
Hill, who is up for re-election this year, maintained his position that the dust-up over the letter was a distraction from the city’s more pressing issues.
“I make no apologies for that,” he said.