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Adding English to the Consent Agenda

October 01, 2000|Steve Chawkins

I've been in some big towns and heard me some big talk, and none of it occurs during the consent-agenda portion of local government meetings.

A consent agenda is a great thing, because it is the one tiny part of democracy that is unsullied by talk.

Items on the consent agenda are instantly approved--not gnawed on, postured over or mashed into the kind of conversational gruel that sustains elected officials well into the wee hours.

As one who has sat through too many meetings, I'm big on consent agendas. They're quick and simple, like a prayer of thanks. And they require no emoting from our leaders, whose hearts and minds are heavy with more important matters. All that is needed is to be agreeable, as in the following hypothetical examples.

Consent item 1: Approval of modifications of Part VII, Sec. 7 of the street code, changing the hue on asphalt roadways from "Glistening Ebony" to "Midnight at the Oasis."

Action: Uh huh.

Consent item 2: Approval of School Nutrition Action Plan 12(a-e), concerning recommendations that students enjoy their roughage.

Action: You bet. Roughage. Mmmmm.

Consent item 3: Approval of flexible benefits program for county employees.

Action: Okey-dokey. Flexible is good.

That is . . . I mean . . . it's . . . well . . . um . . . does this mean the end of families as we know them . . . the end of Western society--the end of the county? Can we talk? I mean, this ain't Berkeley here, for Pete's sake . . .

That last item, I have to say, wasn't so hypothetical.

Without telling the world in so many words, Ventura County's Board of Supervisors last week voted to provide benefits for "domestic partners"--that is, the gay or unmarried domestic partners--of the county's 7,500 employees.

Frank Schillo, the supervisor from Thousand Oaks, later said he didn't realize what he was voting on, despite the thick set of explanatory documents in his agenda packet. Most of the other supervisors said they knew what they were doing but didn't figure it needed to be hashed out in public.

Now Schillo is trying to revisit the discussion, or more accurately, to have a discussion and redo the vote. Opponents are accusing the board of using a slick agenda trick to pass a controversial, politically charged measure. Even the idea's supporters aren't crazy about how it all came to pass.

County employees in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara already have this benefit. So do employees at about one-fifth of the companies in the Fortune 500. It's fair, it's sensible and it's compassionate. But, like so many other things in life that seem quick and simple, the board's fair, sensible, compassionate, undiscussed measure has become, as Mr. Hardy used to say, another fine mess.

A bit of advice for the supervisors: You can avoid this kind of embarrassment.

Just make sure that all those vague, ambiguous, misleading agendas are translated into English. Then there will be no more confusion over what you're voting on. Hire a writer, if you must, and those agendas will be not only straightforward, but also the hottest reads in town.

Item: Administrative concerns regarding this year's resident-satisfaction survey.

English version: Let's put Valium in the water supply!

Item: Approval of team-building retreats and management effectiveness seminars.

English version: Aspen, anyone?


Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at

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