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Council: What to do about boards and commissions?

Thursday, November 1, 2018 by Jack Craver

City Council members seem to all agree that something should be done to make the city’s dozens of citizen boards and commissions more efficient and effective.

At a Council work session Tuesday, Council members discussed whether the city should embark on yet another review of the volunteer panels, which are tasked with analyzing and recommending policy to Council. A similar effort preceded the introduction of the 10-1 Council system four years ago.

The discussion was part of Council’s ongoing attempt to reorient city resources toward its seven broadly-defined “strategic outcomes.” Reviewing the efficacy of the commissions fits into the “government that works” outcome.

Few seemed inclined to consider another major overhaul but most said that the city should explore some changes.

Council Member Greg Casar noted that some commissions are regularly busy and producing “key work,” but that others experience “spikes and surges” of work in between long periods of relatively little work. Council might consider allowing such commissions to switch from regularly scheduled meetings (every two weeks or every month) to flexible scheduling based on workload.

Similarly, said Casar, some commissions might not require city staff to be present at every meeting. City staffers “are not making overtime” when they attend late-night meetings, noted Casar.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo agreed, saying that city employees are an important “taxpayer resource” that should be deployed with care.

Tovo suggested the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee should take a look at how often each commission was meeting and how often, if ever, they were failing to meet quorum.

A lack of quorum has been a repeated issue for the Historic Landmark Commission. When not enough members of the panel show up, it cannot take any action. City staff and other members of the commission have often nevertheless planned and showed up for the meetings.

Another concern: Is it really necessary for commissions to formally adopt resolutions every time they want Council to work on something?

“I have at times felt overwhelmed by the number of recommendations from boards and commissions,” said Council Member Jimmy Flannigan. “I’ve told my appointees, ‘You’ve got to call me on the phone if you want me to work on it.’”

Casar agreed that commissions might want to reduce their focus on crafting resolutions in favor of other, more informal ways of communicating ideas to Council members.

Council Member Ora Houston said she felt that Council should strive for greater diversity of opinion on commissions. Some panels, she said, are composed largely of advocates “who think the same way on everything.”

Ideological diversity, or lack thereof, on commissions is largely a reflection of Council’s politics. Notably, while all but one member of Council are affiliated with the Democratic Party and have liberal impulses on many issues, the dais is sharply divided on land use policy. Consequently, Council appointees to the Planning Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission reflect those differences of opinion.

Council Member Alison Alter praised commissions for embodying the “citizen engagement” that “makes Austin great,” but said that Council should consider ways that they can maintain their important role in the policymaking process without “overtaxing staff.”

Photo by John Flynn.

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