By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Sean Brooks put out a different perspective on the commission reform process (see: Reform to City Commissions Is Essential).
From his perspective proposal put forward by Mayor Josh Chapman and Vice Mayor Bapu Vaitla is “a necessary reform.”
Writes Brooks, “In my personal experience as a founding (and now former) member of the Police Accountability Commission, I saw first hand how the status quo fails to provide the city with the timely expert advice and public engagement it desires.”
He argues, “The commissions as they stand are a poor vehicle for public and expert engagement. The proposed reforms will help by consolidating the number of commissions and more clearly delineating their scope, allowing city staff to more effectively support their work.”
He adds, “But streamlining the commissions is not enough. If we accept that their limitations make them poor vehicles for public advisory, we need to envision new strategies for accomplishing that essential work.”
We can of course debate whether this is true and whether the proposed reforms will accomplish this.
As I noted the other day, I got to know Elaine Roberts Musser nearly 15 years ago when the council made a poorly executed and ill-fated attempt to merge the Social Services Commission with the Senior Citizens Commission.
While I don’t believe that there was any ill-intent here, as I pointed out earlier this week, the proposal seemed to lack the institutional knowledge and the history not only of some of these commissions, but also why they came to be in the first place.
The easiest criticism, as Elaine Roberts Musser pointed out in her letter in the Davis Enterprise, was that, “The matter was introduced on a Friday night before Tuesday’s City Council meeting, not as an informational item, but to be voted on, with virtually no time for public input/opposition.”
More critically, “There was no meaningful input from commissioners. Allegedly chairs of commissions were consulted about what was/wasn’t working in their respective commissions, but merging commissions was not mentioned. Some chairs were not even consulted.”
That’s Civics 101 – especially in a place like Davis – get buy-in from the stakeholders. Had the subcommittee met with each of the chairs of the commissions, they would have gotten feedback but also apprise them of what is happening.
By not doing that, a lot of people who volunteer considerable time were not only caught off guard but had limited opportunities to offer their opinions and suggestions. The dais is not a good place for dialogue with the community – in fact, while there are public comment opportunities, it is a decidedly asymmetrical venue, as the community learned with an unfortunate exchange last week.
Sean Brooks notes, “The recommended reforms have drawn significant criticism. But ironically the controversy exemplifies the problems the council is trying to address. While those of us who are city politics gadflies may have strong opinions, the role of commissions is not well-understood by the general public.”
He adds, “This lack of public understanding means debates over process can be confused for debates of substance.”
On the other hand, as Musser points out, “Ostensibly, merging commissions would make them “more powerful”, according to the Subcommittee on Commissions (Vaitla/Chapman). Yet merging commissions will cause the workload to double, resulting in either longer meetings or less time to discuss issues. More importantly, commissioners are not likely to have subject matter expertise to cover both missions in a merged commission.”
That is one of my big concerns as well.
The Council has already backed off from the HRC-Arts merger, but there are other problems as well.
For example, the Utilities Commission and the Finance and Budget Commission – one of them makes recommendations on rates and requires a high degree of subject matter expertise while the Finance and Budget Commission is largely concerned with city revenues and fiscal responsibility.
The Unitrans Committee is largely a UC Davis entity that addresses bus routes, something that does not get a lot of discussion by the Bicycle, Transportation and Street Safety Commission – which by the way, is already a merged commission.
A lot of the points that Brooks raises are valid.
He writes, “The existing commission structure faces multiple functional problems: sprawl, limitations of city staff resources, and unnecessary restraints created by state law. But commissions are also fundamentally exclusive – restraining opportunities for input into city policymaking to a privileged few, and locking out potential experts and the broader public.”
While he argues that the “reforms proposed by Mayor Chapman and Vice Mayor Vaitla deal with some of these problems, but not all,” that may or may not be true.
Several people I have spoken with who agree that there needs to be change, also believe the roll out here was problematic. For one thing, why the rush? There was no situation that compelled such an urgent approach without a full discussion with each of the commissions and their stakeholders.
A good discussion and dialogue might have avoided some of this minefield and these road blocks.
It is not too late.
If the concern is the General Plan process, my suggestion remains to create a steering committee such as was created in 2007-08 which would allow for one body to take on this work over time. This would be much like the also successful Downtown Plan Advisory Committee.
I think there are legitimate concerns that were laid out by both the council members but also the opposition and only through dialogue can these concerns be addressed.