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Council hopes to reform committees – again

Friday, January 13, 2017 by Jack Craver

City Council still does not know what to do about its committees. Despite reforms enacted last March aimed at making them operate more smoothly, Council members mostly agree that the four-member panels that they voted to put in place as part of the new 10-1 Council system are not working as intended.

Council members were hoping to take a serious crack at developing a new solution for committees during their two-day “retreat” at the AT&T Conference Center on Wednesday and Thursday. However, because talks on other matters took far longer than planned, they only spent about 15 minutes discussing committees, an ironic conclusion to a retreat aimed largely at getting Council to budget time and money more effectively.

“We had hoped for a more in-depth conversation,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo after the meeting. Tovo has asked to continue the conversation on committees, albeit without the consultants, at Council’s next work session, on Tuesday, Jan. 24.

The short discussion with consultants brought in to brainstorm ways to reform Council’s processes yielded agreements and disagreements about what committees are for and how they should operate, but very little consensus on what changes, if any, Council should take.

Peter Hutchinson, a Minneapolis-based consultant with Accenture, a major management consulting firm, immediately got pushback when he argued that committees could serve only one of four distinct purposes he outlined: do work delegated to them by the whole Council; do work on behalf of Council and make recommendations for Council’s approval; prepare Council to make decisions; and finally, to study subjects in a deeper way than the full Council would.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said that there was a fifth purpose to committees he was neglecting, which was for Council to create more forums for the community to engage with their leaders.

If a forum for community members to voice their concerns about government is an important goal, said Hutchinson, “In my world, you would create a committee to do just that” and only that. Kitchen disagreed: “Not in my world,” she replied.

Council Member Delia Garza hinted that the committees are useless. The debate on a proposal that takes place among the four members of the committee is invariably repeated when the proposal is before the full Council, she said, and whether a proposal earns the recommendation of a committee does not have much of an impact on the other seven members of Council.

“I’m not prepared to vote on something just because four of my colleagues say I should,” she said.

If that is the case, responded Hutchinson, committees should stop making recommendations.

“If you’re not going to take the recommendation, don’t ask them for it, because that’s crazy,” he said.

Council Member Alison Alter, one of the two freshmen on the dais, said that while she believed Council needed to find a way to engage with the public earlier in the policymaking process, she was unsure whether committees served that function well.

In many instances, she said, “they are simply adding another level of public engagement that is onerous” for both the Council members who sit through multiple meetings on the same subject and the members of the public who have to show up to make their cases to a citizen commission, then a committee, and finally to the whole Council. Alter, for instance, was heavily involved in the Bull Creek Road Coalition, whose color-coordinated activists were able to persuade at least two commissions to recommend against approval of a controversial development but were ultimately unable to win the votes that mattered on Council.

“We as a Council have chosen to ignore what the boards and commissions are telling us,” said Alter.

Council Member Leslie Pool echoed those sentiments, saying that she was concerned that the committee system had “diluted” the role that citizen commissions have traditionally played in advising Council on policy.

The city could do a better job, Pool said, of showing its appreciation for the hours of work that commissioners do on a volunteer basis.

For instance, she said, “We don’t even give them a cup of coffee anymore.”

Photo by M.Fitzsimmons (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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