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Council inches forward to consensus on commissions

(Feb. 15, 2013) In a seemingly cathartic close to one of its last strategic planning sessions, the City Council took steps toward a consensus about the politically charged reinstatement of the body’s sub-committees and commissions, admitting that some mistakes had been made in the past and pledging that things would be done better this time around.

“This isn’t a re-creation of the old system. We’re developing something new,” said City Manager David Recor, of whose administration the strategic planning process is the key initiative.

“This is recognizing that the council has delegated work to a committee before it comes back to the committee as a whole,” said planning facilitator and professional municipal consultant Lyle Sumek.

“It has to be the chair [of the committee], the city manager, and the department head concerned working together to inform the council.”

Such an idyllic picture of cooperation, however, has not always been painted.

The dissolution of the council’s standing committees was the first action taken by the four-member majority that came to be in 2010 after Councilman Joe Mitrecic lost his re-election bid to Councilman Brent Ashley.

Mitrecic’s ouster allowed Ashley – along with Joe Hall, Margaret Pillas, and Jim Hall – to create a four-member voting bloc that openly bucked the previous administrative norms. The oft-called “new majority” developed a relationship of mutual antagonism with Dennis Dare, then the city manager, and Mayor Rick Meehan.

In November 2010, the victors’ first act was to dissolve the council’s commission system, whereby separate sub-committees of three council members heard reports from city staff or interested parties and presented the information back to the full council for any decision necessary. All reports were subsequently presented in open session, before the entire body.

Despite the removal of the dominant faction in the 2012 polls – in which Hall and Hall lost to Dare, now running as an elected official and not a paid executive, and a returning Mitrecic – the commission system has continued to be a symbol of political discontent.

The surviving members of the 2010 majority submit that the commission system reduces transparency by developing policy in ad-hoc legislative groups, some of whom became quasi-autonomous and politically factionalized, rather than before the empowered body.

But proponents of the system’s return argue that the additional input garnered makes for richer legislative action and that by forcing every issue before the whole council, the previous majority was simply trying to expand the scope of its political control by micro-managing.

During the planning session, however, a middle ground seemed to be apparent. Both sides voiced similar discontent with the way committee and commission matters had been presented in the past.

“[Commission matters] had already been voted on in committee and I had to put my hand up because I hadn’t even heard anything about it before,” Pillas said.

“Maybe what happened in the past is that the preliminary information from committee often didn’t come the whole way up the chain,” Dare said.

As a remedy, Mitrecic simply suggested that commission proposals be given more time, rather than being brought up, discussed, and recommended before those outside the commission had a way of knowing the issue existed.

“It felt [in the past] like I was reading a report on something that was already done … it was approved by committee, and then someone just made a motion,” Mitrecic said. “Sometimes, people need time to digest things.”

Going forward, he said, “we don’t discuss it right then and there,” when new ideas or concerns are brought up.

“Sometimes staff gets into that laxity… and sometimes members of council as well,” Mitrecic said.

At Sumek’s suggestion, a list of impending items will be distributed for every committee and commission. New matters would have to be formally listed, and “would have two avenues – either it goes back to the whole council for direction, or it goes through staff or the committee chair to be put on a future agenda,” Sumek said.

 

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