Commission Consolidation a Big Mistake

As someone who embraces public service as an integral part of the American social contract, it dismays me when government moves to minimize the voice of the people it represents. Case in point: The recent flirtation with folding 20 volunteer City Commissions into five. Yes, that’s five.

City management has decided to use the commissions—and commissioners, I might add—as pawns in the seemingly endless battle over how to curb the city’s structural budget deficit. But given the city’s (real or alleged) pension woes and six-figure compensation for Mayoral staff it would seem to the lay observer that commissions are not exactly the 300-pound gorilla in the room.

Conveniently, the City Council report on the consolidation, prepared by the City Clerk, has nothing to say about the actual cost of staffing the commissions. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the Clerk had nothing to say when I called his office yesterday. I’m still waiting for my call back …

This kind of obfuscation is nothing new for city management. It doesn’t take a council gadfly to recognize the pattern of staff reports that are heavy on recommendations and light on budget impact. This is no way to run a city. If commission staffing is a drain on our budget, I want to see the numbers, and our elected councilmembers need to see them as well in order to make informed decisions.

Commissions build civic pride, inspire community engagement, and act as a conduit for you and me to interact with our elected—and non-elected—city leaders. They are vital to ensuring accountability and transparency in government. To institute these draconian measures without full disclosure of the potential consequences is the ultimate irony.

Of course, this is not the only area of governance where city management is attempting to subvert the people and our democratically elected council. Last week, we heard the latest in the city manager’s ongoing quest to liquidate vacant city properties and grant herself the authority to execute any sale of less than $500,000 without council approval… Say what?

I’m all for structural deficit reduction, but are these really the root causes, or just another power play by the 17th Floor? 

What kind of voice will the community will have in this new “Super Commission” system? 

How can staff expect to merge the Arts, Early Care and Education, Library, and Parks & Recreation Commissions with the Public Safety Bond Oversight Committee without a reduction of oversight in any of those areas? 

Is it wise to continue the fire sale of city property when the market is at its worst?

These are just a few questions the public should pose to city management. But as we have less and less forums in which to do so, I hope our elected leaders will bother to ask them on our behalf.

Peter Allen is an independent communications consultant and a proud native of San José.

Peter Allen is a communications consultant and proud native of San Jose. Contrary to popular belief, he is not currently employed by any candidate for San Jose Mayor or City Council. Follow him on Twitter at @pjallen2.

20 Comments

  1. Bravo, Peter! This whole idea is obviously half-baked.

    San Jose would be the only major American city without an Arts Commission. What is that saying to the world? We value business and technology but not the creativity which is vital for healthy competition? Not good for San Jose’s brand. The arts make-up a significant business sector in our valley and contribute millions in direct economic impact annually.

    What is a city without culture? Simply put, a city without a soul.

    • Thank you KRON4.  You did something even the unions couldn’t do. We took pay cuts, we took loss of members based upon the direction of the Union and the city. You looked into and investigated a crime and exposed it.  Now we see why the city wants to limit the amount of volunteer commissions in the city.  These commission people will all be picked for protecting the goals of the city.  I think we need a new volunteer commission.  IAC. Independent Auditing Commission.  Staffed by volunteers!  Peter I have the people ready if you can push it through.

  2. Well said – as a former Parks Commissioner who helped bring about the update to the Parkland Dedication Ordinance fees, to keep them inline with current land values; it is shame to see a recommendation that would ignore that millions of revenue that the Parks Commission has brought into our city.  Where is the value in that?  Show me the cost savings.

  3. Maybe consolidation is meant to save the City money as part of Mayor Reed’s visoionaary “Go Green San Jose” energy conservation scheme? Did anyone ever think of that? Maybe Mayor Reed is trying to squeeze every penny out of the City’s utility bill so that he never has to layoff another police officer or fire fighter! So some librarian somewhere in San Jose can keep one more library open 7 minutes longer every week allowing some gangmember who would otherwise be committing unspeakable crimes against other homies access to those clean well lighted places or one more Megan’s Law Registrant access to internet porn on a taxpayer funded computer! Maybe consolidation will allow Mayor Reed to hire yet ANOTHER 6 figure consultant – maybe the ONE consultant who might figure it all out so that we can have pensions and salaries and well kept parks and 24/7 libraries and breakfast in bed on our birthdays and yes unlimited committes!!!!

    Did any of you “smarty pantses” think that my be why Mayor Reed has proposed consolidation???? No of course you didn’t think of it because you are not as smart as Mayor Reed! It is high time you civic minded committee volunteers realize that you have been riding the gravy train for way too long!

  4. Bravo!  The stated purpose of the consolidation is to reduce costs and to eliminate redundancies in commission work.  The plan as presented has no analysis of cost savings and showed no redundant work being done by commissions.  Great inaugural column!

  5. Peter,
        Thanks for showing a flaw in the system.  I find the city is developing “Friendships” with all sorts of people. They will turn on employees and the public.  Now I’m seeing clear the mission.  Take in certain Union leaders.  Silence the public.  Prevent public review and retain power with a small few.

  6. Thanks Peter – a few comments

    City Administration does not like City Commissions because:

    1) They ask too many questions that city administration does want to answer like:  Why are we spending taxes for—-, What does it cost city to do——, Why are’t we computerizing——?, Why does city need same numbers of highly paid managers when we have less employees ?  etc

    2) City Staff is called to be accountable for their actions or lack of actions by residents and taxpayers on Comissions

    3) Commissioners learn what city administration is doing behind closed doors, ask why and want openness

    4) Commissioners want open transparent city government not more city back room deals, secret meetings and questionable tax spending

    5) City Administration has fought for years almost all efforts to let public know what is really going on at City Hall, where taxes are being spent and open government reforms, secretly encouraged by some Mayors and Council members because they did want their political deals known by public ,

    6) City Administration thinks they are not responsible to public and taxpayers and have shown they can manipulate Council and play Council members against each other

    I could go on but you get my point – Commissions are need to keep city administration accountable and open transparent when certain Mayors, Council members and City Administration want to do secret deals, closed door meeting and not inform public about city government spending and decisions

  7. As the former Chair of the San Jose Appeals Hearing Board, I believe another big problem with this proposal is the plan to dramatically alter the membership of the city’s Appeals Hearing Board.

    San Jose’s Appeals Hearing Board is an independent, quasi-judicial, citizen-appointed board that conducts administrative abate action hearings, appeals to code enforcement citations and select other matters.

    The proposal seeks to swell the size of the Appeals Hearing Board from 7 members chosen at-large to at least 13 members – a dramatic increase that would make it extremely difficult for the Board members to conduct the public’s business in a timely and effective manner. Even worse, each elected member of the City Council would be allowed to make their own appointment to this otherwise “independent” Board – thus questioning the appearance of independence so very critical to the Board’s success in serving the citizens of San Jose.

    The San Jose Appeals Hearing Board is a shining example of how appointed city residents can play a vital, participatory and cost-effective role in local government. In fact, San Jose’s Appeals Hearing Board has served as a model for best practices in local governance with Appeals Hearing Board’s based on San Jose’s model being considered in several other jurisdictions throughout California.

    As with other elements of this proposal, I would like to know what exactly are the problems that require a fix. With public participation in local government an important value in our city, I would certainly volunteer my precious time to help identify more reasonable reforms that protect the public’s trust.

  8. Full disclosure – I’m a library commissioner, but
    I’m speaking for myself. 

    To be 75% of the recommendations make a lot of sense.  The proposal has two parts: stream-lining the process of running the commissions and consolidating commissions.  No one will disagree with the streamlining recommendations.  They include standardizing agendas and procedures, and having published work plans.  These make sense and should be implemented, without or without a cost/benefit analysis.

    Most of the consolidation plans make sense.  Maybe we should combine the transportation commissions.  It mashing the Library, Early Childcare, Arts Commission and Neighborhoods Commission into one very large group that gives everyone problems.

    Cut out this proposal and all of the complaints disappear.

  9. Thanks, Peter, for speaking out. When did reduction of democracy (lowercase d) become a good idea?  If residents have the passion to serve on commissions – unpaid, shouldn’t our electeds care what they have to say?

  10. If the disappearance of the city Arts Commission leads to the extinction of the Comintern-modeled Office of Cultural Affairs, bravo.  Those are some real wastrels spending tax dollars on political messages. 

    Example: the costly and odd street-side art objects around City Hall celebrate everything but this country.  A bystander wouldn’t know what country he was in even if he could successfully decode the concept behind each symbol.

    The public is not well received at existing city commission meetings.  The most disgraceful commissions in this regard are the Arts Commission, the Library Commission, and the Parks & Recreation Commission.  They are so tightly controlled that they feel like a sub-committee of the legislature of Albania.

  11. I am Vice Chair of the Advisory Commission on Rents (ACR).  We were alerted that there would be public hearings which I couldn’t attend.  But I never dreamed there would be these drastic cuts, that all the commissions will be shrunk to 5 commissions.  I do not have the details and I hope to with this news.  I would like the dollars and hours of time that this would save for use of staff. What are the gains and what are the losses? This does seem extreme to say the least and I will certainly contact Pete Constant, my rep in District 1 about this.  For there to be no representation for the Arts is unacceptable in the 10th largest city in the US.  The Arts generate dollars and value of life in the city.  This is particularly short sighted, not recognizing the value of a vibrant Arts community.  It makes people want to live and work in San Jose and educate their children here.  Let’s look at the city’s investments as a source of funds to invest in the city.  Drastic cutting makes San Jose small and not what the 10th largest city in the US deserves.

  12. UPDATE: I (finally) received a call back from City Clerk Dennis Hawkins. He told me his office was preparing a study on the cost of commission staffing to be presented at this week’s Rules Committee meeting. Unfortunately, looking at the agenda, I don’t see said report. I’ll keep my ear to the ground and let you know when it materializes.

    Thanks for your passionate comments! Keep ‘em coming…

  13. Speaking on my own behalf, I strongly believe that consolidation of all the commissions is not a good idea. Each individual commission is specialized in the area of which it provides services for.

    Consolidation is not the answer.  I enjoyed the article Peter!