Tension Grows Over Council Policy Changes

Malibu City Council during the livestreamed study session

A Monday afternoon city council study session—during which two council members proposed major changes to how council would function—was met with almost unanimous backlash from members of the public in attendance, many of whom were alerted to the meeting’s scheduling through a social media rallying cry that characterized it as a “coup d’etat.”

The meeting was called in response to a sweeping proposal that Council Members Bruce Silverstein and Steve Uhring put on council’s agenda in early January 2021. Named “Proposal to Instill Transparency, Accountability and Ethics in All Aspects of Malibu’s City Government,” it advocated for changes such as recording all calls about city business and prohibiting the use of personal devices for communications about city business. 

Silverstein, during his 2020 campaign, pledged to fire Malibu’s current City Manager Reva Feldman, whom he deemed corrupt, and to fight corruption in general at Malibu City Hall. Since his swearing-in, Silverstein has battled Feldman for access to documents and information and demanded she sit for a filmed conversation with him and grant him access to phone records—requests she denied. 

When Silverstein and Uhring’s proposal came up in January, council voted (4-1, with Silverstein dissenting) to send it to an ad hoc committee composed of Council Member Karen Farrer and Mayor Pro Tem Paul Grisanti. Farrer, Grisanti and Malibu Mayor Mikke Pierson have often voted down Silverstein’s proposals, 3-2, citing his attacks on Feldman and her perceived allies over social media as bad conduct. 

Monday afternoon saw Farrer and Grisanti’s response to Silverstein and Uhring’s proposal—a completely fresh, far-reaching proposal that provided recommendations for updating 51 current city council policies. The pair said they examined multiple council policies of comparable cities, such as Agoura Hills, Calabasas and San Juan Capistrano, and reviewed Silverstein and Uhring’s proposal, despite their new document seeming to have little of Silverstein and Uhring’s original ideas in it. 

Silverstein took issue with that. He also criticized the fact that the original proposal had been put in Farrer and Grisanti’s hands in the first place, characterizing the ad hoc committee as “Siberia.”  

“[Farrer and Grisanti’s] proposed set of policies expand existing limitations on transparency and accountability; it does nothing to increase either. Instead, the protocols provide a mechanism for the majority of the city council to stifle dissent and punish the expression of views and the use of language they find offensive,” Silverstein said. 

Many members of the public denounced that the study session had been scheduled for 4 p.m. on a Monday—a time when many Malibuites were still at work. They also complained that the last-minute scheduling of the meeting provided fewer days for residents to read the accompanying staff report—which they viewed as a backdoor way to shoehorn in policies. 

“Having a meeting at 4 in the afternoon without the public having the current policies that guided the city for decades in hand …  is the opposite of transparency,” Patt Healy, a local slow growth activist, said. 

Many residents were alerted to the meeting’s time by posts on the neighborhood discussion app Nextdoor, some of which characterized the meeting as a “coup d’etat.” 

“Did you ever see that Marvel Comics movie where Captain America and his friends discover that the agency they serve turns out to be infiltrated by the bad guys? I feel like I woke up in that movie this morning,” local writer Suzanne Guldimann said. “My email inbox and phone messages were full of concerns about coups and power plays, but this wasn’t a Russo Brothers movie, it was Malibu City Hall.” 

Guldimann saidshe read the staff report and still did not understand many of the proposed changes. She wondered what the urgency for the seemingly fast-tracked changes was and worried the changes may make important ordinances harder to enforce. 

Guldimann—along with many other residents—was worried about the proposed change of allowing only council members who had served at least two years on council to become mayor, instead of having a rotation through all five members. That change would effectively block Silverstein and Uhring from the mostly symbolic position until 2023.

“Without the explanation for this change, it comes across as politically motivated. I realize that tensions between factions have continued to run high on the council. Unfortunately, because of that, these proposed changes feel reactionary, instead of visionary,” Guldimann said. 

Farrer, Grisanti and Pierson pushed back against the “coup” notion. At the beginning of the meeting, Pierson reminded residents that the council planned to meet more in the future to work on the issue. During her remarks, Farrer said the meeting was a study session meant to function as a workshop rather than a place to pass policies. 

Farrer also said that the proposal’s fast turnover had been something for which Uhring himself had pushed. Uhring responded that he had not pushed for Farrer and Grisanti to come up with the document they presented; rather, he would have preferred an edited or annotated version of the one he and Silverstein had submitted earlier. 

With about five minutes left in the meeting, Uhring pressed Grisanti to outline what changes he and Farrer had actually made and why they were necessary. 

“Paul, let me ask a question. Why are you so reluctant to be able to clearly explain to the residents what it is you’re doing? Because that’s what they want to hear,” Uhring said.

“It’s hard for me to explain, Steve, when the residents use up all the time talking about something they read on Nextdoor,” Grisanti responded. 

“Oh, now it’s the residents’ fault!” Uhring exclaimed. 

“Steve—,” Grisanti began. 

“That’s what you just said. It’s the residents’ fault. It’s not the residents’ fault. They’re expressing themselves, that’s their right and they should have the ability to do that. Your job is to make sure when you’re changing stuff that you have a clear understanding of what you’re changing, why you’re changing it and what’s—”

“Steve—,” Grisanti tried again.

“That’s what I believe.” Uhring threw up his hands. 

“Steve, people want some time to think about it and so we’re going to give them time to think about it and we’re going to help you think about it,” Grisanti said. “Hopefully, we’ll all be better informed by the next one.”