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Task Force meets to determine future of boards and commissions

Thursday, February 6, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

With just one meeting under its belt, the city’s commission on commissions is diving into the work ahead of them.


First on the agenda? Maybe fewer commissions.


The Boards and Commissions Transitions Task Force met Wednesday evening, and began work on the daunting task ahead of them: addressing Austin’s upcoming switch to single-member districts. Specifically, the task force is charged with making recommendations on what will be done with the city’s 60 boards and commissions when City Council expands from 7 to 11 members.


Planning for the transition remains in the early stages, with most of the discussion centered on how many members each board should have, how long the current members serving on boards and commissions should remain in their roles, and whether some boards and commissions should be done away with entirely.


“I don’t think we’re going from 60 to 30. If we go from 60 to 55, I think that would be (something,)” said Chair Victor Martinez. “The engineer part of my brain says that it makes sense to combine them, but the other side of my brain knows it’s going to be extremely controversial.”


At their next meeting, task force members plan to take a closer look at the city’s sovereign boards, which are those that can make final decisions. They plan to consider whether the Planning Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission could be combined, with the Planning Commission taking over the responsibilities of both.


Task force member Dave Sullivan pointed out that the Planning Commission is in the unique position of having its transition defined by charter and, no matter what they decide, will consist of 13 members unless a change to the city’s charter is made.


While that may be so, some task force members worried openly about what might happen if all of the boards and commissions were comprised of 11 members, and raised concerns about meeting quorum requirements and general chaos.


The transition task force is comprised of current members of the city’s commissions, some of whom offered insight into their particular plights. They plan to solicit input from all 60 boards’ and commissions’ chairs, though some of those chairs serve on the task force already.


“I’m chair of the Library Commission. I brought up that we only need to meet quarterly. We do very little, in my personal opinion. And they all just thought I was being sacrilegious,” said task force member Olga Wise.


The task force is also considering whether an entirely new population of 600-odd commissioners should be instituted at the time of transition, whether there should be a buffer period to allow the new City Council to adapt to the other changes they will face, or whether some of the commissioners should stay on to help ease the transition.


Sullivan calculated that roughly one-third of current commissioners had terms that extended until July 2015, and suggested that those commissioners could serve out the end of their term in order to help provide consistency.


But that suggestion, just like suggestions to have smaller commissions than 11, raised a larger question of which Council members would get to appoint commissioners and which would have existing representation.


That was weighed against the alternative, which would require Council members to appoint about 60 people each, immediately. There were other suggestions as well, like the possibility of commission members being selected through consensus, or nominated by the mayor and voted upon by Council members.


For the time being, those all remain questions, but the group expects to have a report prepared for City Council in March.

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