Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bored with boards

There is a lot of talk lately about boards and commissions. State of the Division has posted a couple articles that are critical of the board member selection process and the Animal Shelter Advisory Committee. I have to agree with much of what he says. I also think I understand what's at the root of the problem with boards.

It's hard for the city government to create effective boards when they're not clear on why we have boards in the first place. Here are some of the main reasons I think we need them.

The first reason we have boards is to connect the citizens with the city government. It's important that the city government not be isolated from the community as a whole. Governments need constant feedback. Feedback is need to prevent and correct errors and identify problems.  With a properly functioning board the city government and the community will connect on issues and work together to shared, supportable goals and avoid a significant number of problems. This helps reducee the "us vs. them" mindset that is so common.

The second reason to have a board is to bring a fresh perspective from outside the walls of City Hall. This is in reality a part of the first reason but it's purpose is to keep the government from being isolated. Far too often there is a traditional, legalistic, governmental rule book way of dealing with issues. A government staff that isn't connected to the community will also act defensively. A good board is a balance to traditions and power centers in City Hall. You have to balance the inside with the outside.

Another reason you need boards is to act as representatives of the city council at the working level so council has an independent view of what is going in city hall from a citizens perspective. Council can't be everywhere. That's why we have boards.

 The last reason you need a good board is you need groups that can take a long view independent of the day to day operations. City governments get in trouble when all the solutions are tied to short-term goals with little longer than an election cycle. We've had some local progress such as a capital budget we put in the charter to force planning for some stuff at least 5 years into the future. City officials still have problems thinking beyond a budget cycle or the next election. A good board has the luxury to think long range. What will our grand kids be doing? What will happen to San Angelo in a hundred or thousand years? Will it be a thriving community or just an archaeological dig? That should be part of the mission of every board.
Right now we have many boards that are probably unnecessary. We have many boards where attendance is so low they have a hard time making a quorum. Some only meet a couple times a year and really they don't have much work to do. Many have vacancies that haven't been filled for years. Many of the board members I've talked to don't know what's expected of them or what they can do or what role they play in the city government.

Four years ago I submitted a plan to the City Council. They looked at it. They voted on and approved it and then promptly forgot about it. They did make changes to the boards and commissions some of the changes were actually steps backwards. The council pretty much abandoned the selection process to city staff who does all live review and screening. It's tough for anyone with fresh perspective or a different opinion from staff to even get before Council unless they can convince a council member or the Mayor to push for them.even though or just post to be picked and selected by city council and serve at the pleasure of City Council. Boards are not staff. They don't do day to day operations. They are there to advise council and staff on policy and the future. 

Things need to change. Here are my recommendations.
1. Every board and commission should should face a review every 2 years. This review should happen at a joint session where the board should be able to tell the council why it should continue and what it has done for the past few years. Council should give feedback on how useful the board has been and what it expects in the future. Special requirements and qualifications for membership should be part of the review. If the board needs expertise, they need to have a plan on how to get it. A list of future goals should also be part of the review. At the end of the session, the council should either say "Good job. Keep it up.", "Here are changes we expect from you in the future." or "Thanks but we don't really need this board anymore."

 2. Every application for board membership should be forwarded to the appropriate council member. Staff should verify that the applicant meets the requirements for the position. If the applicant meets the requirements, the packet should go forward. If there are any staff considerations besides qualifications, those should be forwarded as part of the packet but if the person meets the qualifications their name should forwarded. The decision is for the council, not staff, to make.

3. Attendance should be monitored and reported to the council, probably at least quarterly. Any meeting that is canceled because of lack of quorum should be brought before council at the next meeting it can be put on the agenda, probably during public comments and made part of the public record.

4. Every board should have a clear, action oriented mission statement. One I particularly like is this one from the Airport Advisory Board: "The board shall act as an advisory board to the airport manager, and the city council, and is expressly directed and empowered to make a complete study of all phases of the airport operations and make recommendations from time to time for the most efficient operation of said airport." Not perfect but not bad. We need similar mission statements for all the boards. And they need to be taken seriously.

5.  Board members don't work for staff, they work for council. They do, of course, have to work with staff and and they should be supporting, not fighting staff. That being said, one of the most important functions board members should do is as a devils advocate. They should ask tough questions and not be just an echo chamber for staff. They need to have an unfiltered connection to council. They should be self governing and independent from staff in decisions and questioning.

6. A properly functioning could be part of the hiring process, especially for liaisons. They should work closely enough with staff and be knowledgeable enough in their area they can offer independent advice up the supervisory chain. They might be able to serve part of a screening committee during a job search. They should be another a set of  eyes that know the city's needs. Not sure any of them are ready for that yet but in the future I could see the water advisory board giving advice on hiring a water utilities director or engineer.

These are our thoughts today. You can see they haven't changed much over the last few years. Hope to see some of the changes soon.


  1. Boards are just another layer of bureaucracy citizens are forced to deal with. Boards members are city council member cronies and have no more connection with the community than city staffers do. In most cases less connection and less expertise.

    The us versus them attitude is the main motive driving city council member thinking.

  2. An instructive post. People to really know who they want to reach and why or else, they'll have no way to know what they're trying to achieve. People need to hear this and have it drilled in their brains..
    Thanks for sharing this great article.
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