By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Only in Davis would proposals around commissions generated heated discussion in some segments of the community.
Staff proposed a number of changes to commission administration – some of which were criticized as having come forward without council direction and without consultation from the commissions and commission members themselves.
“The past Council Subcommittee on Commissions, working with the City Clerk, expressed interest in holding a workshop for Council to talk about commissions,” staff noted.
Staff recommended, “City Council consider the matter of residency. The default requirement is residency within the city limits. Residency requirements can help ensure
that commissions are community driven”
According to the current handbook, “Commission meetings are intended to last no more than 2-3 hours. If there are time sensitive projects or topics, they should be agendized first. It requires a 4/5ths vote of the commission to take up a new item of business after 2 hours. If there is interest or need to continue past 3 hours,
it should only be to conclude a pending item or discuss a matter which may not wait until the next meeting.
“Meetings should not last more than 4 hours. If there is still a continuing need to discuss an item, the meeting will be adjourned to a date and time certain to continue the item.”
An issue of some controversy was a provision that stated, “When a Council Subcommittee is established on a matter, it will take the lead role on all future actions in order to coordinate resources and efforts. If the Council Subcommittee is interested in seeking commission input, they will coordinate such activities via the commission staff liaison. Commissions should not schedule agendized discussion items or undertake subcommittee work unless they are specifically requested to do so by the Council Subcommittee.”
Members of the public saw this as an effort to curtail subcommittee believing that it would permit commission subcommittees only on council request. During public comment, there was considerable push back on several issues of concern.
Alan Hirsch for example, complained, “As a respect the commission workshop, the staff framed the issues in your staff member without any input from people in the community, (including) many on commissions who see issues with the status quo.”
He said, “None of the issues I raised, for example, in the Vanguard piece are even noted in the (agenda item), must less discussed.”
Second, he said, “Staff is not an objective observer in the commission process. They provide one viewpoint. There are other viewpoints of what the commissions are and what’s happening there.”
Third, “only the voice of staff gets to be heard,” “The other participants in the community process don’t get to be here. The staff gets to define the issues. They get to participate in the discussion this evening, and they then present a lengthy slide. I get two minutes.”
Further, he noted, “should have invited and could have invited other participants to present issues this evening, just like they present consultants. It was not done. If you wanted a workshop, you wanna have multiple viewpoints. I usually thought staff is in control of the process. Commissions are about public participation and ownership of our government. It’s the means of engaging people.”
John Johnston, past chair and current Vice Chair of the NRC noted that many of the items they deal with, “are technical, difficult items to deal with. They can’t be done in two hours. We don’t do four hour meetings. But two is, I think, the staff’s recommendation, too restrictive.”
Colin Walsh, Chair of the Tree Commission, “I want to note that there are at least four current or past chairs of commissions here tonight. That’s most of the audience who’s here. That’s because it’s important. But we’re here because we found out about it because we had an email from a friend, or we read the city council. No one contacted the commissions to say this was being discussed tonight.”
He added, “I think the most troubling thing, though, is there’s nothing in this proposal that says, talk with the commissions about, talk with members of the commissions. Talk with past present commissioners about better ways to do this.”
Donna Neville, current member of the Planning Commission, former member of the Finance and Budget Commission, “If I heard it correctly, the administrative recommendation is that co-advisory commissions couldn’t create subcommittees, ad hoc or otherwise without council direction. I was concerned to hear that because in the time I served on Finance and Budget, every recommendation that we made came about as a result of a subcommittee’s analysis and recommendations to our full commission, even including our review of the annual budget.”
Kelly Stachowicz responded in an effort to clarify the issue of the subcommittees.
“Subcommittees by commissions are absolutely critical to them doing the business. There’s really no way that most of the commissions could do all of the things they need to do just with their one meeting per month,” she said. “Consequently, they regularly form subcommittees to look into particular things in more depth and then bring back information to the full commission.”
She explained, “The issue that we put before you this evening, to clarify, is just when the council creates its own subcommittee on a particular topic, when that happens, what we’re suggesting is the council subcommittee is then the lead.”
She continued, “The council subcommittee determines if it wants, particular input from different commissions, or anything like that. We’ve had the situation recently in the past couple of years where council created a subcommittee on an issue, then commissions created the same subcommittee on the same issue. And, it made it very confusing, particularly when the council liaison to that subcommittee to that commission was not part of the subcommittee that the council had.”
Mayor Will Arnold pushed back.
“Staff has always been an easy target for denigration for members of the community,” he said pointing a finger at Alan Hirsch, who he said, was “one who frequently, recently, seems to target staff. It’s really a convenient target. But staff serves the council, and particularly when they’re bringing recommendations to us, I want recommendations. I don’t want a blank slate.”
He said that recommendations from staff “help frame the issue.”
But Colin Walsh, shouting from the audience, interjected, “Recommendations from commissioners would help you frame the issues as well.” He added, “Your hostility to the public is noted.”
Will Arnold then noted, “Earlier tonight at the State of the Union address, Majority Taylor Green had a couple of outbursts too, just while we’re noting company.”
He pointed out, “I didn’t speak over you when you were speaking, please don’t speak over me.
Walsh continued to do so briefly.
Arnold added, “I wanted to put that out there, it’s a long tradition in Davis and it doesn’t, it’s not limited to Davis, that staff is a target of council member ire (as well).”
He added, “if you have issues with staff, bring them to us. We’re the ones who were elected, and, we are the ones who ultimately bear that public responsibility. I will happily take folks saying that the council is wrongheaded on something all day. But please leave out staff out of it.”
Arnold acknowledged that they set the standard very high for commissioners, but “In so doing, we may intimidate or otherwise disincentivize good folks from even entering the fray.”
He added, “There’s expertise throughout our community that we benefit greatly from as elected policy makers. And so I don’t want to minimize. We’re very lucky in the city of Davis that we have so many experts in, in our community.”
Later he said, that he doesn’t want to try to hash out all of these big ideas.
He noted the need for “involvement in the commission in this conversation.” He joked about the need for a “commission on commissions.”
He also added the need to set a subcommittee of the body tonight “that is going to take on the task of filling those vacancies through a process.”
Gloria Partida noted that “I think it was a little confusing to have this labeled as a commission workshop because obviously this is a workshop before, and that’s not really a commission workshop.”
She said, “I understand that people are worried and concerned that the commissions being excluded because that’s what we’ve been hearing.”
She said, “We hear that often. We hear often that the commissions are not listened to. And I think some, sometimes that’s because, we have disagreed with what they have put forward.”
Partida believes “something has broken down when people feel like this… that the way that we’re doing business right now is not helpful.”
She noted there are an awful ot of commissions in Davis, but she wonders to what extent the commission system has actually increased accessibility to the larger community to have their voices heard.
The council pushed through the items that had some consensus with the understanding that other issues would need to come back. A subcommittee of Josh Chapman and Bapu Vaitla was formed to review commission charges and structures.