Boards & Commissions Mix-and-Match
The city tries to consolidate its committees
The city of Austin currently lays claim to more than 60 different boards and commissions, ranging from the Arts Commission to the Airport Boulevard Advisory Group to the Zero Waste Advisory Commission to the Mechanical, Plumbing, and Solar Board. Sixty, says the official consensus, is simply too many: Each costs money to run and requires seven (soon to be 11) appointed figureheads – volunteers, that is – to maintain.
The coming transformation from a seven-member City Council to 11 members means changes are ahead, and the city wants to rethink the way those boards and commissions operate. Thus, a task force met for the first six months of 2014, charged with recommending a transition plan and issuing ways to improve the way citizens participate in city government.
In May, 15 task force members, headed by Austin Area Comprehensive HIV Planning Council Chair Victor Martinez, proposed a series of recommendations, ranging from eliminating certain boards whose charge has expired (the Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Task Force and Lake Austin Task Force), creating and reassigning a handful (including the Joint Cultural Committee, which would combine membership from nine different existing committees) and consolidating a series of others. (A full list of recommendations is available at www.austintexas.gov/content/boards-and-commissions-transition-taskforce.)
Martinez reported a great deal of dissension when the recommendations were made public, with each commission slated for consolidation or removal (save for the Urban Forestry Board, set to be combined into an 11-member Environmental Commission) objecting to the plan.
Chief among the dissenters have been members of the Downtown Austin Community Court Advisory Committee and the Public Safety Commission, two groups recommended to consolidate into the Emergency Response Services Commission. But members of both commissions responded that the two have little in common.
"The clients of the Community Court are people who get a Quality of Life or Class-C misdemeanor," said Marshall Jones, chair of the CCAC, which advises the Downtown Austin Community Court on policy and operational issues. "But the majority of our clients, other than your knuckleheads who get public intoxication citations when they come Downtown, are the homeless. To put those people in something that would merge with Public Safety would send the wrong message. Our homeless population is not a violent or aggressive population, and it's not a public safety threat. It's more of a humanitarian or health threat." Jones recommends – if the CCAC must go anywhere – folding it into the Austin/Travis County Health & Human Services Department.
Meanwhile, PSC chairman Kim Rossmo, a retired police officer and criminology expert who now teaches at Texas State University, argues the reasons extend beyond the specifics laid out by Jones and into issues of governmental theory. "The whole principle of government is to separate certain responsibilities," said Rossmo. "Combining law enforcement and the judicial process is a big no-no, and I don't think they thought that through or consulted any lawyers. The whole judicial process needs to be kept separate from the enforcement process. It's a fundamental part of how we do governments in the United States – in a democracy. It was a bad idea to start with."
Council plans to hold a public hearing on the task force's recommendations at its meeting Thursday, Aug. 7. After final approval, any changes would take effect when the new 11-member Council takes office Jan. 1.