Alameda Commission participation needs help tonight

A month ago, the City Council asked staff to slow down on a proposal to limit the memberships of various boards and commissions and to reduce the frequency of meetings for a number of the city’s bodies. At the meeting, the council appointed a subcommittee (Bonta and deHaan) to work on a process for engaging the community in how to move forward with a process that saves the city money while makes the unwieldy commission and board process more effective (read: useful). More on the concerns here.

At the time, the council seemed to grasp that the proposal was lacking in purpose beyond, how little can these commissions meet and how can we decrease staff time associated with them.

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

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).

The problem with tonight’s subcommittee recommendation, is that it is essentially the staff recommendation from May 3, with a lot more staff time attached to it. Essentially, staff will write a report that will go to all the boards and commissions between now and the end of September, summarize it and come back to council in the fall.

The proposal recommends that staff will write a “Summary of City Council’ s goal to improve the efficacy and efficiency of Commission advisory activities” and yet there is no process for the council to come up with that goal. Staff will be writing their own goal, based on what they guess is the Council’s idea, which is neither transparent, nor an effective use of staff time.

Since the parade of staff reports will take place through September, there is time for the council to direct staff to do the following, which would be on the same exact timeline as is currently proposed, but with more clarity and finishing the work this year, instead of just starting it:

  1. Tonight: Put together an actual goal for the process and bring it to the council at its next meeting so that everyone is clear on what should be accomplished at the end of the process.

If they want to move forward, they might consider the following:

Purpose:Restructure Alameda’s Board and Commission in order to increase the input of Alameda residents, maximize the effectiveness of Board and Commission meetings and provide transparency to public decision-making and to do so in a cost-effective manner that reduces the current time-burden on city staff.

Objectives:

  • Determine the appropriate commission structure, including commissions, members, meeting schedules and staffing
  • Streamline communications between Commissions/Boards and the Council in order to maximize the effectiveness of commission meetings
  • Clarify the role of each board commission
  • Develop process for council giving direction to Boards and Commissions
  • Identify the expected time needed for each commission to perform its duties
  • Clarify the expectation for public input in the creation of plans and policies
  • Identify effective ways of engaging the community in soliciting input, alerting them to issues, etc

  1. July: Take public input early on how best the city can meet this goal. If staff wants to make a proposal, do so early and take public comment which would take the form of:
    1. On-line input
    2. Traveling presentation to boards and commissions This could also be done in written form on-line and via email if there are no meetings. (Youth Commission can be engaged on-line or as a part of Step Three if in-person is necessary).
    3. Public workshop
  2. September: Write up a final recommendation for council, hold a public workshop before finalizing it.
  3. October/NovemberTake the final recommendation to the council.

Honestly, it’s hard to understand how a process that was begun with the hope of reducing staff time due to inefficient commission organization could become more of the problem, but the recommendation appears to propose just that.

Too often, the public process is treated as if it creates useless work. In this mindset, public input is cut out from the beginning and relegated to the end, which often leads to the need to re-write work products, lessens the likelihood of community buy-in and reduces the chance that ideas from the community are not incorporated.

Then, when public participation is forced into the process because it wasn’t included to begin with, you get a lot of work (like tours of boards and commissions), without a lot of bang for the buck. Staff buy-in on their own proposals often leads to resistance to change of significance.

Tonight is the night to start making the reforms to public process that are needed in Alameda. The council needs to clearly set out a process that has a well defined goal, and a simple process with public input at the beginning and end, that doesn’t take two years to accomplish. Five months from now, this project should be done.