Alameda Commissions on the block

Tonight, the city council will be discussing moving forward with re-configuring the boards and commissions the serve as points of public input to the city. The way this is moving forward is troubling on a number of fronts. It’s been well known that councilmembers and staff have wanted to do something about the number of hours spent managing public processes, and it’s a laudable goal. The last council, with staff support, decided to make the changes via mayoral fiat, leaving vacant many seats on boards and commissions so that meetings couldn’t be held.

Boards, of which there are six,  are codified in the charter, meaning that any changes must be made by the voters, but commissions, of which there are ten, are merely defined in the municipal code, and so staff is, wisely, recommending that the council focus on efforts here.

Alameda has a problem with boards and commissions, namely, they work in isolation and the council is often in the dark about what they are doing. Commissions raison d’etre is to advise the council on issues, so if the council is unaware of the work that’s being done, you’re quickly into “if a tree falls in a forest…” territory.

Which brings us to the problem with the ongoing process to adjust the commissions in our town. While an improvement, the city has yet to hold one meeting to discuss commissions, what their role is, and how best they can meet the needs of the city and public. Look at tonight’s agenda, staff is bringing an item on reducing the number of commissioners and commissions to the council as a City Manager Communication, so that the council can give comments before staff draws up an ordinance. This is where updates are given, not substantive discussions of import.

Commission’s are not just “staff time-sucks,” however that is what this process has reduced them to. The entire goal is how little can the boards meet and how much staff time can be saved? Yes, that’s an important piece, but absent a discussion of what are the commissions goals, are they meeting them, and what do we need to do to make sure that they produce something worthwhile (it’s a post for another day, but the Transportation Commission has been so neutered that one wonders why staff would think six monthly meetings are necessary).

Staff’s recommendation is to rush an ordinance to the council by June 7, meaning zero public meetings until the decisions have been made. A highly ironic end-run around the public input process for determining the public input process. Here’s a suggestion for a slower process:

  1. Put a hold on all new commission appointments, allowing, as the municipal code already does, people’s whose terms are runnign out to keep serving until a new appointment is made.
  2. Direct staff to put together a policy, to be adopted by the council, on how public input processes should be designed
    1. Early input on the overall direction of a project of policy in the form of a workshop or scoping meeting
    2. Staff to design a recommendation
    3. Recommendation has a public hearing at the appropriate board/commission
    4. Council asked to adopt recommendation of the board/commission, with staff providing their own recommendation
  3. Identify, based on the public input policy, what boards and commissions are needed, and what is the appropriate number of meetings for that board commission. (e.g. TC may only need to meet quarterly, but reserve the right to hold special meetings when projects come up that need comment)
  4. Identify the proper number of members for a commission based on the input needed (The Transportation Commission should have a bike seat, a transit seat, a pedestrian seat, and a disabled seat, if you reduce it to five members, you’re basically limiting your input)
  5. Bring to the council, a meaningful recommendation, that will probably have fewer commissions and less staff time than currently proposed, but that will result in actual work being accomplished and a more informed City Council.

Lastly, Exhibit two in the packet lists the hours currently spent in a year, and the hours that will be saved under the new plan. The council needs to be aware that the hours listed for the Transportation Commission appear to have some really odd assumptions in them, and that the actual time savings, based on the last two years of meetings, will be significantly less.

Over the past year, the City has held 8 TC meetings for a total of 9.2 hours, in order for City Staff to have spent 126 hours on the meeting (not counting the reported 398 prepartion hours),  14 public works staffers would have had to attend each meeting and that PW staff would have spent 50 hours per meeting. Anyone who’s looked at a TC agenda will also question how 400 hours could have been spent preparing for those meetings, very little of substance is presented. I think the assumptions are based on something else.

Even if the TC met 12 times in a year (I don’t believe that has ever happened) and each meeting was three hours long, you’d still need 3.5 staffers per meeting. and thirty hours of preparation per meeting (essentially one person working for an entire week). It’s a stretch.

Hopefully, the council will “provide direction” to staff to take a little more time and to come back with a proposal that is more fleshed out and agendized for a real discussion (prior to bringing forth an ordinance).