Sunday, October 17, 2010

Animals, Boards, Commissions, and Communications

I was pleasantly surprised Friday to find that once again, the city website has the agenda packet online and usable. Last meetings packet is also still up. Progress. Thanks Alicia and the staff that helped you get this done. It's appreciated. 

A quick scan of the packet shows a couple of items that really interest me. They are revising the Animal Services Board ordinance, and they are discussing city boards and commissions again, hopefully so we can have the first review in the near future.

We've known for a while that the Animal Services Board ordinance, 2.3800, and the ASB Bylaws were in need of revision. At the minimum, they were out of sync with each other. There questions about how well it tracked Texas Health and Safety code chapter 823, which governs animal shelter advisory commissions, which is one of the major functions of the ASB. There were questions about whether health director and animal services director should be voting members. The Bylaws were last approved in 2000, while the Ordinance was last updated in 2007.

A workshop was held by the ASB on March 10th 2010 to address these issues. I was invited to that workshop (which was, of course, an open meeting) to help with the discussion. It was requested that City Legal have a representative at the meeting, but none were present. The meeting lasted a couple hours, and at the end, they had a good revised set of documents the hoped were ready to go before City Council. Just needed legal review and possibly some tweaking before becoming an ordinance.

That was 7 months ago. Tuesday a new ordinance is finally on the agenda. Unfortunately, this is a mostly new ordinance to replace the one we currently have. First off, it changes the name to Animal Shelter Advisory Commission (although the new 2.3810 still uses “members of the animal service board”.) Then it reduces the number of members from 9 to 5*, all of which now have to be involved in some animal related business or activity. No plain citizen or property owners are on the board. It requires 2 veterinarians even though we've had trouble getting even one to serve. It limits the scope of the commission to just the animal shelter, ignoring the larger question of animal welfare throughout the city.

I have a number of problems with this. First, why did it take 7months for this to come before council. As far as I knew, outside of some minor tweaking, the only open question was whether or not the staff members on the board should be voting members. The proposed ordinance doesn't make it any clearer. Next, this is a very major change to the duties and the responsibilities of the board/commission members. Staff, in their briefing to council in the agenda packet, states that the ASB has "historically been called upon to provide advice beyond  the scope of the law authorizing their creation and duties." If they are referring to the Health Code, section 823, then that might be the case. The ASB was not created by section 823, but to be in compliance with section 823. It was created by a city ordinance that gives them the animal shelter advisory role as just one of its duties. A review of several other Texas cities animal commissions finds that several of them use their commission for general animal issue advice. Lubbock specifically requires their ASAC to "advise on the city's animal services program." Midland requires their Animal Control Advisory Commission to "advise on animal control issues referred by council." This pattern is common.

The proposed ordinance changes the make up of this board/commission significantly. Any change this large should be addressed as part of the board and commission review process that has still to get off the ground. At the minimum, it should be done during a joint session.

This brings us to a problem that goes to the fundamental reason we have boards and commissions. Boards and commissions work for the City Council, not city staff. They are appointed and removed by Council. They are accountable to Council. They are subject to Council guidance and limitations. They are supposed to be the expert advisers to Council, and in many cases they are councils representatives. They are an extension of City Council into many areas because there just aren't enough council people to be everywhere. They are not just auxiliary, unpaid staff.

Unfortunately, our boards and commissions are being used and treated like low level staff. They are isolated from council, their boss, by staff. With the exception of statutory appeal boards like the planning commission and the zoning board of adjustments, you never hear about a boards input on an item before council. Many board members, especially on the animal services board, don't know who appointed them. Start and end dates for their term in office are often unclear. Boards have almost no contact with the council, and are often left to fend for themselves on critical issues. What guidance they get doesn't come directly from council. Instead, it's filtered through several layers of staff. Some times staff does a great job of getting the word down to boards. More often than not, it's like the old game of telephone where the message to the boards bears little resemblance to the guidance from the council.

Boards and commissions need to have good, unfiltered lines of communication with the city council. Their recommendations should be heard unedited by the council. Staff needs to be in the loop, and the staff representative needs to make sure that the council is given staffs input on the issues. The city legal department need to be in the loop to make sure that the city stays in compliance with the law, but that is no reason to delay input to the council by half a year. If nothing else, all board decisions should be presented to the city council for discussion as a draft work in process. Even if staff has concerns, and needs to do further research the council should always know when a board votes to send something forward. That's just basic communication.

The board and commission review process the council adopted last spring will help address these problems. I think it is very premature to do a major restructuring of a state required commission before the council has done a fair review of that commission using the process they approved.

*Made a mistake on the number earlier. Was caught by a sharp eyed reader.  Sorry for the error.


  1. One further thought: Under the proposed ordinance, the rooster ordinance that was recently passed, and the dog breeder and related ordinances would be outside the area that the ASAC could deal with. Like the ordinances or not, the process of reviewing those would now fall on council and take up much more staff time.

  2. One more thought: Boards shouldn't be dominated by staff. The ASAC has 2 staff positions. That's 40%. How hard do you think it would be for them "influence" at least one of the outsiders to do things their way.