A Bombshell Was Dropped – What Next?

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.

 

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6 thoughts on “A Bombshell Was Dropped – What Next?”

  1. anonymous

    Davis senior citizens need to understand that defeating any reelection bid by Ruth Asmundson or her hand-picked replacement,if our current Mayor chooses not to run, is the socially uncomfortable but necessary route to protect their Senior Citizen Commission from extinction.

  2. Told You So!

    Told you the City Council would look for stupid ways to “save money” by “lessening” city staff time – while they waste literally millions of city staff time on updating the General Plan! So they are going to save a few cents of every dollar consolidating commissions, while the lion’s share is spent updating the General Plan, that doesn’t need any serious overhaul, but just minor tweaking. The city can’t afford to fill pot holes or fund employee benefits, but must redo the entire General Plan? Talk about poor city management – by both the City Manager and City Council!

  3. Rich Rifkin

    Because I am a commissioner for the City of Davis — Historical Resources Management Commission — I feel conflicted about this issue. I think we may have too many citizens’ commissions (18), each of which eats up staff time:

    1. Bicycle Advisory Commission; 2. Business and Economic Development Commission; 3. City – UCD Student Liaison Commission; 4. Civic Arts Commission; 5. Finance and Budget Commission; 6. Historical Resources Management Commission; 7. Human Relations Commission; 8. Natural Resources Commission; 9. Open Space and Habitat Commission; 10. Planning Commission; 11. Recreation and Park Commission; 12. Safety and Parking Advisory Commission; 13. Senior Citizen Commission; 14. Social Services Commission; 15. Social Services ADA Subcommittee; 16. Telecommunications Commission; 17. Tree Commission; and 18. Unitrans Advisory Committee.

    I don’t have any suggestion as to which commissions should be scrapped or consolidated. However, I think it might be wise to A) reduce the frequency of commission meetings — until times are better — to no more than 6 per year, save in cases like the Planning Commission, where that would cause undue delays to project applicants.

    Also, I notice that at the HRMC, we often have 3-5 members of the city staff in attendance. It might be wise, save when a specific staffer’s specific expertise is required, to limit staff in attendance to the liaison and the scribe. It also might be cost effective to audio-record the meetings, and not have minutes taken at all. The liaison could be responsible for compiling a brief outline of what took place, but not record a complete documentation of the minutes. (I might not suggest this last idea, but for the fact that Nancy Stephenson, who was the secretary to the HRMC and absolutely brilliant at compiling thorough and accurate minutes, recently left Davis, and thus we don’t currently have anyone doing her job.)

  4. E Roberts Musser

    Mr. Rifkin, how would you like your commission to be consolidated with the Planning Commission as a subcommittee, or eliminated altogether? Doesn’t matter if this “merging” or “elimination” of commissions is appropriate. Doesn’t matter that your commission was never consulted – the City Council Subcommittee on Commissions is just going to put it on the consent calendar, and if no one sees it, it will be a done deal the next time you show up for your commission meeting. How does that sound?

    Which commissions do you propose to consolidate and why? But it would not be up to you or the public to decide which ones go. Nor would it be up to the commissions themselves. It would be up to a two person Subcommittee on Commissions to make the decision. The last Subcommittee on Commissions was aligned w the City Council majority. Any commission that does not toe the line is a good candidate for being “merged”, i.e. subsumed to be made a mere subcommittee of 3 or less, eventually to be dissolved altogether to “cut costs” – because even a subcommittee of a commission that formally meets must have a staff person to take minutes, according to the Brown Act.

    In our commission, the city liaison takes the minutes. So we have one staff person only, for 2 1/2 hours a month. Our commission represents the interests of all senior citizens in Davis. Yet our commission was going to be eliminated altogether, and when that didn’t fly, relegated to a 3 person subcommittee of the Social Services Commission. The Senior Commission serves all seniors in Davis. The Social Services Commission serves all low income in Davis. The only thing the two commissions have in common is low income seniors, nothing more. The two commissions’ focuses are entirely different. Yet our commission was going to be eliminated? Now why is that? To save staff time? We meet once a month, for 10 months out of the year, in the afternoon, from 2:30pm to 5:00 pm. Relative to other commissions, how much staff time does our commission take up? Bicycles have their own commission, so do trees, but seniors are not deserving of a commission?

    At the time of the proposed “merger”, “to save staff time”, suddenly three or four staff people would appear at our meetings, including the City Clerk. If “saving the cost of staff time” was the reason for the consolidation, does the sudden appearance of three or four city staff people at our meetings make sense to you?

    Did you ever wonder why there are so many staff people showing up to commission meetings, especially when these city staff people don’t seem necessary? You should be asking “Why?”. Many commissions are completely frustrated at how closely city staff try to control commissions. I have no idea if your commission has experienced this, but I can tell you other commissions have.

    Commissions do not control the number of staff that come to their commissions. The City Manager and Staff control how many city staff come to commissions. I suspect many commissions would be very happy to decrease the amount of city staff that come to meetings. If a particular commission wished to meet only on a quarterly basis, I very much doubt anyone would have an objection – including the City Council/Staff. So why hasn’t that been suggested as a cost cutting measure, rather than suggesting the elimination of some commissions altogether?

    Commissions serve at the pleasure of the City Council. As such, they are subject to its whims, political biases, political manueverings, and the like. A consolidation may be nothing more than an attempt to get rid of a commission that has become a thorn in the side of the City Council, bc the commission won’t rubber stamp the City Council’s decisions. Commissions represent the public in greater detail on specific issues. Cutting commissions reduces the opportunity for public input. Do we really want to go there? I think not!

  5. E Roberts Musser

    Furthermore, consolidation produces an issue that distracts from the real fiscal problems of the city – the lack of funding for the “unmet needs” of road repair and employee benefits. It is interesting that the City Council was seriously thinking about wasting millions of dollars in city staff time on overhauling a perfectly good General Plan, yet want to save pennies of city staff time by eliminating a commission or two.

    Just as an aside, if our commission had not survived, we would not have helped facilitate a CHP safety video, featuring our commissioners’ personal views. There would have been no Transportation Safety Expo in Davis. Nor would there have been the AAA DVD program installed at the Davis Senior Center that specializes testing of senior driver acuity. Nor would there be transit mobility training for seniors in Davis, teaching them how to ride public transit despite physical mobility problems. Commissions reach out to their constituencies in various ways, creating a richness to Davis life, a unique city culture. Why would anyone want to take that away?

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