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.