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Council to examine time, cost of maintaining advisory boards and commissions

Thursday, February 3, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The Austin City Council will move forward with its plans to examine the expenses associated with maintaining its many boards and commissions. Their unanimous action came last week  amid suggestions that city staff support of those groups may cost too much both in terms of hard dollars and time.


According to the council’s resolution, City Manager Marc Ott and City Clerk Shirley Gentry will have their offices coordinate a review of “the indirect costs of organizing and running (the boards and commissions).” That effort will include a study of “city staff time preparing for, attending, or administering board meetings as well as supplies, facility and other costs associated with board proceedings.”


Council Members carefully staked out positions around the importance of their advisory bodies. And though no one on the dais was ready to question that fact, there were concerns about how those organizations might tax city resources.


“We’re trying to maintain, I think, these terrific benefits of having an involved citizenry and a reasonably transparent government but at a reasonable cost to all of us,” said Council Member Bill Spelman, who has spent time on the city’s board circuit.


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez echoed Spelman’s remarks. “I realize that this (move) will probably raise some eyebrows for folks thinking that we’re trying to limit public participation or limit our boards and commissions,” he said. “I don’t view it that way. I view it as creating efficiencies.”


He then reminded his colleagues about their recent shuttering of the long-languishing Renaissance Market Commission. “Transparency doesn’t come with just having a board or commission,” he said. “We’ve had the Renaissance Market Commission for how many years and they haven’t been able to meet in how many years because of a lack of a quorum?” he asked.


“That, to me, is grossly inefficient … no public discussion takes place, no work gets done, and no recommendations get to Council.”


For his part, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, a former Environmental Board chairman, noted that previous efforts to quantify the costs associated with boards and commissions had been incomplete. “I feel now and I even felt then that the fiscal impact of the board was not exactly accurate or as thorough as it should have been,” he said.


“If we’re going to do this, my only request is that we do it in a real world way and come up with an accurate number that gives us some way to assess the cost and also, at the same time, gives us a way to control the costs.”


There are currently more than 50 boards and commission that serve the City of Austin. They are collectively made up of about 450 volunteers.

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