Word To The Wise
A Bombshell Was Dropped – What’s Next?
By E. Roberts Musser
In our Davis Senior Citizens Commission meeting on Thursday, March 12, 2009, our City Council liaison Sue Greenwald dropped a bombshell. At least it felt that way to some of us on our commission. Councilmember Greenwald said there was a “cost saving” move afoot to consolidate the city’s commissions – yet again. The rationale behind this move is supposedly to cut down on city staff expense.
Speaking personally, this news gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I know what our commission and the senior community went through the last time the City Council tried something like this in 2006. It led to an ugly showdown that did not reflect well on the City Council’s Subcommittee on Commissions. Endless hours of city staff time were wasted in an attempt to relegate our entire commission to a three person subcommittee of the Social Services Commission.
I see the same thing happening all over again. Huge amounts of city staff time will be spent trying to save minimal city staff time spent on commission business. Each commission targeted will believe the motivation for its elimination is political in nature. This is because many commissions represent a thorn in the side of certain City Council members, when a commission does not rubber stamp decisions. Interested members of the public will rally ’round the besieged commission in question, determined to save it from oblivion.
And what will have truly been gained? The city will become even more polarized than it already is; the Subcommittee on Commissions will come under fire and be accused of all sorts of political maneuvering; a gargantuan number of city staff hours will be spent justifying the commission’s elimination; and in the end it will come down to a bitter City Council vote, but only after the public has gotten itself into an uproar.
However, some in the city will benefit no matter the outcome – namely the City Manager and his staff. Attention will have been drawn away from the real administrative issues of the day – specifically the “unmet needs” of the city, such as the lack of funding for road repairs and employee benefits. Claims will be made the City Manager’s staff is highly overworked, and needs to be burdened less. Yet the problem of not enough money for “unmet needs” will not be any closer to being solved than it was before the concept of commission consolidation was posed.
Let me emphasize for the reader how ugly this business can get, in light of what happened in the case of our commission about three years ago. A commission consolidation scenario might go something like this:
- A Subcommittee on Commissions will be formed, consisting of two members of the City Council (less than a quorum), selected by the Council majority.
The Subcommittee on Commissions will quietly decide to eliminate certain commissions that have been problematic for whatever reason. Of course the commissions to be abolished will not be consulted on the matter, nor the community at large.
The elimination of the commission in question will appear in the City Council Agenda’s Consent Calendar, in the hope of flying the item under the radar screen. This way approval will be had without any vote taking place, or the opportunity for civic comment.
When the Subcommittee on Commissions is overtly caught not following proper procedure in allowing for public comment and commission input, the Subcommittee on Commissions will trip all over itself apologizing.
Subsequently, a representative of the Subcommittee on Commissions will pop up at commissions targeted for elimination. This representative will change tack from outright commission removal, and try to advise one commission they will have “more power” by “merging” with another commission. If that line of reasoning isn’t convincing, the representative will insist the process is still “evolving”. The idea is to continually change the arguments often enough to totally confuse the issue and perpetually move the target. That way any logical basis against abolishment or “merging” fails to hit its mark.
Commission is pitted against commission. The commission to be subsumed finds itself being attacked verbally by the commission that is to remain intact. Nasty barbs are openly exchanged back and forth between the two groups, horrid words that cannot be taken back.
The commission to be subsumed will not be allowed to weigh in on the issue of elimination or “merging”. City staff will see to it, by: a) controlling what goes on the commission’s agenda; b) showing up to the commission meeting in groups of three or more staff members, in solidarity, as an intimidation tactic.
The commission under attack will decide not to approve any agenda not of their own making. In consequence, commissioners will not be allowed to leave the room – until city staff can convince commissioners to endorse the rigged agenda. The entire commission will walk out in defiance.
In frustration and anger, commissioners will turn to members of the public, and circulate petitions to save their commission. Infuriated citizens will assist in the petitioning process, garnering signatures from even friends of those on the Subcommittee on Commissions.
A spokesperson for the commission to be subsumed will appear during the Public Comment portion of a City Council meeting, delivering the petitions to City Council members for all the world to see. The spokesperson’s impassioned speech will appear over the Internet and on public access television for years to come.
The Subcommittee on Commissions will be shamed into voting for keeping the commission just as it has always been for 35 years. A representative of the Subcommittee will apologize for dividing the community, and creating so much angst amongst Davis residents. A member of the Subcommittee on Commissions will be roundly criticized in the Sacramento Bee during the next election cycle for the use of bullying tactics.
After all is said and done, do we really want to go this route? I think not. There is very little to be gained and much more to be lost. Our very own Davis Senior Citizens Commission knows all too well the pitfalls of this course of action.
Lesson to be learned
: Commissions represent a very important part of civic life. Having them in existence causes citizens to feel more like active participants in local decision-making. It also engenders the belief the City Council takes an interest in its populace and whatever issue the commission stands for. To tinker with consolidating commissions achieves very little in the way of cost savings, but instead is an open invitation for creating unnecessary dissension in the community.
Elaine Roberts Musser is an attorney who concentrates her efforts on elder law and aging issues, especially in regard to consumer affairs. If you have a comment or particular question or topic you would like to see addressed in this column, please make your observations at the end of this article in the comment section.