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Council hears feedback on boards and commissions transition

Thursday, August 14, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council heard opinions last week about a plan to move its massive boards and commissions network to the new 10-1 Council system next year. As anticipated, there were several complaints.

The Boards and Commissions Transition Task Force issued its final report in May on how the nearly 60 boards and commissions should best transition from the current seven member at-large system to the upcoming system, which will have 10 geographically based members and 1 at-large mayor.

Ideas about eliminating or combining commissions have already met with resistance from their members, including the Public Safety Commission, who voted unanimously to oppose a proposed merger with the Downtown Austin Community Court Commission.

Angelica Noyola, who is a member of the city’s Community Development Commission, spoke against a recommendation to combine the Hispanic/ Latino Quality of Life Commission and the Emma Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center Commission. She said the community overwhelmingly opposes that recommendation.

“We feel merging the two boards will significantly slow any forward momentum we are trying to achieve. Our Latino community is not monolithic. Therefore, the commissions should remain separate,” said Noyola.

Commission for Women chair Amy Welborn and Commissioner Flannery Bope asked Council to reconsider plans to eliminate their commission. Welborn said she was opposed to the report, which classifies her commission as “a group that does a little luncheon.”

“We don’t do a luncheon at all,” said Welborn. “Their solution was to put one female on the diversity committee, which is made up of a member of all the other commissions, so that the other diversity groups would have a commission and then be part of this diversity committee. But they would just put, in essence, a token female over there that would deal with all women’s issues.”

Welborn explained that her commission had created the women’s hall of fame and honored women in the community in addition to looking at fair wages, child care issues and the role of women in public positions like the police force. Currently, the commission is working on a Council directive to look at women’s health in Austin, and is busy creating forums and talking to the community and experts in order to compile their recommendations on the topic.

Welborn said the elimination of the commission would be saying that women’s health and women’s issues are not important and do not need representation, which she said was “just ridiculous.”

T.J. Dodd, who is the business manager for the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 286, expressed concerns over the suggestion to consolidate the Electric Board, the Building and Fire Code Board of Appeals and the Mechanical, Plumbing and Solar Board into a new Life Safety Board of Appeals. Dodd explained that each of the individual boards was made up of experts in their specific field for a reason.

“The plumbing code is not interchangeable with the mechanical code or the electrical code. I will venture to say that if you want to know how to safely install an electrical system in an elementary school, not one of you would ask a plumber or sheet metal worker. You would ask an electrician,” said Dodd.

Dodd did say that he liked an alternative plan that would have all three boards meet on the same night so that developers of large projects that require approval by all three boards are not tied up in scheduling problems and multiple nights of meetings.

Carol Biedrzycki, who serves on the Resource Management Commission, said she was impressed with the report from the task force and their ability to come up with a solution that “looks very workable.” That said, she had some suggestions. She asked that the role of joint committees be clearly defined before moving forward. Biedrzycki also offered that this might be an opportunity to clarify some of the more general rules of commission. Specifically, she hoped that there could be a set guideline for when commissioners received backup materials before their meetings.

For now, Council is planning to take on this topic at its Sept. 25 meeting after the budget sessions are complete.

Council Member Bill Spelman suggested that, in the meantime, Council members could discuss the topic on their little-used message board, which can be found at austincouncilforum.org. As of Sunday evening, a conversation about the boards and commissions transition on that message board had yet to take place.

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