Friday, March 05, 2010

Council Ponders Citizen Committees

Besides appointing liaisons to 11 other city entities and establishing four council committees, the governing body also created several citizen committees with one or two members named by each council member. On Monday, the City Council discussed how the citizen committees functioned last year and what they hoped for them in 2010.

The most prominent citizen committee in 2009 was the Citizens' Budget Advisory Committee, which studied city revenues and spending as the governing body itself moved through the FY 2010 budget process. Unfortunately, the CBAC's final report and recommendations were given on the same night (Feb. 8, 2010) that the council adopted amendments to the budget, meaning the citizens' advice was in effect moot for the budget year that began July 1. For the coming 2011 state fiscal year, both the council and the CBAC are seeking early discussions. The council expects to name FY 2011 CBAC members next month, although the actual budget will not be received from the administration until after the close of the current fiscal year on June 30.

Two other committees, Information Technology and Economic Growth, attracted such citizen interest that there were waiting lists for each one last year. However, Councilman Adrian Mapp said Monday he was "more than a little disappointed" that after the Information Technology appointments were made, nothing was done. Part of the problem may have been that there was no IT manager or division in place last year, but Mapp said he felt even without an IT division, the committee could have been put to good use.

The city now has a new IT manager, Chris Payne, but Councilman Rashid Burney cautioned the IT committee was not supposed to "run the department." Council President Annie McWilliams said the point of the committees was "to advise us."

New City Administrator Bibi Taylor also had a caveat. She said the administration was always ready to provide resources, but had limitations. (One round of layoffs just took place at City Hall and another is coming.) She asked the council to remember that the committees were to work with the governing body.

Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said it needs to be well-defined what each committee's resonsibility is "and what it is not."

The first citizen budget committee in 2008 produced a scathing "report card" that found fault with both the governing body and the administration. The one formed last year took a more collegial approach, but councilmembers stressed the need to orientation sessions before new citizen committees begin working. Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs recalled the report card Monday and asked that all citizen committee requests go through the city administrator's office, except for "media and communications," which would go through her office. The mayor said she wanted to avoid having "a million requests" submitted all different ways.

Burney said the council should set goals and then ask the citizens to take part.

As for Economic Growth, Councilman Cory Storch said the group talked about developing a "tactical plan" which would go into operations. Storch said he did not want to see a committee appointed not knowing what it was to do. He also asked what kind of cooperation was possible between the committee and the mayor.

(In all, Monday's discussion of citizen committees seemed to reveal more of the pitfalls of recruiting residents than the usefulness of the groups. Plaintalker suggests exit interviews with those who served last time to see whether they felt the structure was worthwhile or not, before setting up new committees. The new cabinet needs time to get acclimated and is still lacking key fiscal administrators. How to avoid a clamor of requests for information from people who have just set foot in City Hall and are facing leaner support staffing than their predecessors? Comments are invited.)

--Bernice Paglia


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If these committees are to be of real value they will have to dig deeper than an administration's willingness to spoon-feed information.

5:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While having citizens' committees to advise the council sounds like a good idea it's hard to see their value as they are presently conceived.

The committees, if they are to succeed, need more time, more expertise, and a more sharply defined defined mission.

The committees should be year-round rather than temporary. It takes weeks if not months of work, part time of necessity, to accumulate enough background information and familiarity with formats and protocols to get up to speed. Even then the council has a disproportionate advantage in information gathered over time through investigation and osmosis. What's the point of the committees if the council knows more than they?

As a time-shortener and knowledge-booster the citizens' committees need to have the expertise of experience. In Westfield the budget advisory committee has an ex-mayor and ex-councilpersons. This might be a bad idea in an utopian people's democracy but we ain't living there. The committees also need continual mentoring that gets them over the "if I were king" part of the curve to the section where they can evaluate and recommend what is practically achievable.

The council needs to get over their own vagueness of what they want the committees to do and charge them with specific missions and deliverables. It seems from the article that the past two CBACs presented two very different documents. Were their conclusions really that different, were the presentations just a product of the personalities, or were the presentations a function of election year politics? Whatever the case the lack of consistency suggests lack of direction by the council.

The present council under the leadership of McWilliams now has it's own internal committees for fact finding and analysis. Maybe the council no longer sees much value in the advisory committees. The current CBAC sure didn't get much respect during their recent presentation; despite the presence of the full council, city administrator, corporation counsel and a full house on onlookers, no one could be bothered to rustle up a projector for the committee's PowerPoint presentation. I think there's a message there.

9:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ 5:59

Since the committee members have little governmental expertise, no subpoena power and in fact have no legal authority whatsoever, exactly which mechanisms do you suggest they employ to "dig deeper"?

9:43 AM  
Blogger olddoc said...

Although I had accepted Councilor Burney's invitation to serve on the Citizen's Economic Growth Committee, your column is the first indication that there was any meeting or group discussion of that group.

I do agree that none of the Advisory Committees should be activated until ground rules are established and have so posted on my blog

12:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I second Olddoc. Why am I not surprised?

1:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9:43- Ask questions of anyone you can. You can't get much straight talk from the Administration, so ask around, ask neighbors, ask business associates, ask City employees you are in contact with, ask business owners. Turn up every rock! Have the City Council create a format in which the committees have the authority to meet and ask questions of those below the rank of director.

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enough with committees
just a way to get there friends and relatives in the door of the political nonsense that is Plainfield

10:01 AM  

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