It's 6 p.m. Tuesday and the Beverly Hills City Council has just concluded a three-hour study session. The five council members have an hour and a half before their formal meeting begins at 7:30 p.m.
What to do?
Well, for at least the last 36 years, the council and some city staff members have gathered to dine together at taxpayer expense. And because the council wants to support local businesses, that means dining at some of the toniest and most expensive restaurants in the country.
Council dinner tabs since July 1, according to city spokesman Fred Cunningham, have included $321.20 at the Bistro, $288.35 at La Dolce Vita, $325.65 at the Grill and $272.45 at La Famiglia. Last week's dinner tab at L'Ermitage Hotel's Cafe Russe was $328 for the five council members and two staff members.
The annual total for the dinners is unknown. They are funded from a general account for council expenses that does not itemize the dinners. Cunningham estimates, however, that 18 to 20 dinners a year (four to six council meetings are canceled each year) at an average cost of $300 each would mean spending between $5,400 and $6,000 annually.
Cunningham, who has worked for the city since 1952, said the practice has been going on as long as he has been with Beverly Hills. He said he does not recall any major complaints from residents.
Reasons for Practice
Current and past council members defend the practice, saying that dining together twice a month after afternoon study sessions ensures that all five members will return on time for the night's meeting. More importantly, they say, having dinner allows them to get to know each other on a more human basis--particularly after hours of often opposing words.
"I just can't emphasize just how important an investment in good government this is," said former three-term councilwoman Donna Ellman, who did not seek reelection this year. "None of us needs the free meal. We can all afford to buy our own dinners.
"But you really need a break and (to) not talk about city business. Instead of adversaries, you become friends and human beings. This is as important to the health and welfare of the city as anything else."
Former Councilman Charles Aronberg, who served from 1972 to 1984, said: "I don't think it would a tragedy if the practice was discontinued. But it's a stressful job with minimal monetary compensation ($330 a month). An hour of fine dining twice a month away from the microscope of the council meetings is nice."
Said Mayor Robert K. Tanenbaum: "In theory, it is important that the council can socialize between meetings. The cordiality that exists at the dinners is reflected in the council meetings."
Last year, however, not even an evening of fine dinning could cut through the tension that existed on the City Council. After several heated personal attacks, Tanenbaum stopped attending the dinners and later was joined by former Councilwoman Charlotte Spadaro.
"It was a personal decision that I made because comments made during the council meetings were not conducive to dinner conversation," Tanenbaum said. "It was regrettable."
Councilman Maxwell H. Salter, who had a run-in with Tanenbaum last year, said dining with Tanenbaum this year has helped him work better with the mayor.
"Last year was embarrassing," Salter said. "I think it would have helped if Bob had attended those dinners. Bob's a great story-teller and fun to be with. I now know how to deal with him better. That doesn't necessarily mean I agree with the way he does business, but I now know the human side of him."
Under the state Brown Act, a majority of a governmental body is prohibited from meeting and discussing government business in private.
The Beverly Hills City Council avoids violating the law by posting on its council meeting agenda the time and place of the dinners and inviting the public--Dutch treat--to join them. So far, there have been no takers, Cunningham says.
The council also is reminded not to discuss pending city business by the presence of City Manager Edward S. Kreins and City Atty. Gregory W. Stepanicich
Stepanicich, who has been on the job for 15 months, said he has not had to stop any dinner conversations that might be violating the Brown Act.
"They really are pretty sensitive about that," he said.
A Times reporter attended last week's dinner at L'Ermitage Hotel. No city business was discussed and very few community issues were even talked about as council members dined on cote de veau aux legumes du marche (veal chop with fresh market vegetables and madeira) for $25 and noisettes d'agneau a la menthe et choux verts (medallions of lamb with mint sauce and green cabbage) for $23.50.