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Task Force recommends major changes to some city commissions

Thursday, May 8, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Boards and Commissions Transition Task Force issued its final report last week, recommending the elimination of up to 19 city commissions, mostly through combining the duties of two or more current panels.


The Austin City Council gave the group a hefty task. The blue-ribbon commission was made up of 15 ranking board and commission members – most of whom were chairs or vice-chairs – with the job of recommending how the city’s nearly 60 advisory panels could best transition from a seven-member at-large Council to one with 10 geographically-based districts and an at-large mayor.


Task Force Chair Victor Martinez and Vice Chair Angela-Jo Touza-Medina said they saw their goal as providing for the transition to a new Council structure while making necessary changes to the boards and commissions system.


“The Task Force prepared a transition plan that will enable the current boards and commission to continue their critical work as the new City Council is oriented with governing our city and making their appointments,” they wrote. “For boards that serve a very unique purpose, we are simply recommending a change from 7 to 11, with the Mayor and each Council member making a nomination.”


However, the Task Force had other plans for some panels.


“We completely reorganized the boards and commissions that have to do with planning and development, greatly increasing their efficiency and breaking down existing silos,” they wrote. “We have proposed for certain commissions to sunset, while through the merger of existing boards and commissions or by having membership drawn from other commissions, others would be created.”  


Indeed, the group recommends that quite a few existing commissions be eliminated, and suggests that their duties either be absorbed into existing boards or shifted to new, standing, joint subcommittees. In all, they recommend the elimination of the Bond Oversight Committee, the Construction Advisory Commission, the Downtown Commission, the Electric Board, the Mechanical, Plumbing & Solar Advisory Board, the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission, the Sign Review Board, and the Waterfront Planning Advisory Board.


While they recommend retaining the Zoning and Platting Commission, the task force also recommends expanding their duties to include re-zoning, site plans, conditional overlays and platting and plat amendments.


The report explains that there isn’t enough capacity on one board to do the work of both traditional zoning and long-term planning, but they are hoping for a more equitable split than currently exists, which puts a much heavier workload on the Planning Commission. 


Resource Management Commission Chair Leo Dielmann – whose panel is on the chopping block – sees the switch as an opportunity to make things better. He said that while the RMC plays a crucial role in the city in terms of conservation, he likes the idea of a Joint Sustainability Committee with members who come from other related commissions.


“I’m for integration as long as the missions are clearly defined,” said Dielmann. “I think, maybe, if we had less people and less people clamoring, then maybe there would be more of a tendency to rely on the advice of” the commissions.


“Do I want to see the intent of the RMC go away? Absolutely not. We have to incorporate conservation of electric and water into the decision-making, into the advice, and into the support for Council,” said Dielmann.


Brad Whatley, chair of the Downtown Commission, did not face the prospect of his commission’s sunset with such aplomb. He told the Austin Monitor that he was concerned that the Planning Commission had a heavy enough workload as it was.


“The Planning Commission is certainly an accomplished group, but I question how thorough of a job they can do once they take on more and more responsibilities,” said Whatley.


“I think the Downtown Commission has a really important purpose. Downtown is everybody’s neighborhood, it’s the economic engine of our community, it’s a point of civic pride, and it’s part of the community that everyone enjoys…. I think it deserves special focus and attention,” said Whatley. “My concern is that it wouldn’t get the attention it deserves.”


The task force is recommending that several non-planning boards be considered for consolidation, as well. They suggested pairing the Downtown Austin Community Court Advisory Committee with the Public Safety Commission; the Urban Forestry Board with the Environmental Board; the MBE/WBE Small Business Enterprise Procurement Program Advisory Committee with the Construction Advisory Committee; and the Austin Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities with the Commission on Seniors.


Additionally, the group gave options for the African American, Asian American and Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Commissions, saying their duties could expand to encompass similar commissions or stay as is.


The recommendations contemplate the creation of some committees that would derive membership from other, existing commissions. These include a Joint Sustainability Committee that would take over the responsibilities of the Resource Management Commission, a move that has already garnered some controversy at City Hall. It’s also suggested that the Commission for Women end, with their duties moving to a new Joint Inclusion Commission that will address diversity issues. Additionally, the group suggests forming a Joint Cultural Committee, an Economic Prosperity Commission and an Intergovernmental Commission that would draw membership from various regional authorities.


The group also outlined suggestions for membership of commissions that are not currently comprised of seven members, and how nominations should be handled.


The task force also put together recommendations for a “transition plan” that will allow for consistent operation while the City Council switch takes place. All members serving on Jan. 5, 2015 will continue their service until June 30, unless they choose to step down. The transition period would last from Jan. 6 until June 30, 2015, during which time all of the boards and commissions will operate in their current form, with any vacancies being filled by the mayor.


Council members will study the recommendations and consider adopting them at a future date.

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