A Cacophony of Passions

Why the City Council changed the boards and commissions system – and what still needs to be done

A Cacophony of Passions
Illustration by Doug Potter

"Any time the citizens of Austin feel left out, it only causes problems."

That recent comment by City Council Member Mike Martinez – discussing the need for transparency as council modifies the city's boards and commissions system – explains in a nutshell why Austin maintains such an extensive network of volunteer advisory groups. It encompasses the 43 city boards (the term includes commissions) governed by the City Code, plus 13 additional special-circumstance boards and 28 other formal advisory groups. In all, these bodies total nearly 850 members – an army of engaged Austinites who consider often controversial civic issues and work to influence City Council and city policy.

Thanks to Austin's long activist tradition, our community is rich with mission-driven folks who prize a strong voice in every decision of city government – and boards offer an official forum for input. Feel passionately about euthanized dogs, chopped trees, immigrant poverty, dripping faucets, nude theatre, outdated technology, live music, threatened historic landmarks, cracked sewage pipes, neighborhood parks and libraries, minority contracting, or hippie jewelry on the Drag? Rest assured, a city board meets monthly to hear citizen concerns on those issues. But high expectations for citizen input have mixed consequences. The flip side of Martinez's comment – as the recent history of B&C makes clear – is that any time the citizens of Austin are included, it only causes another set of problems.

Last year, City Council quietly but historically enacted a major set of changes to the structure, processes, and policies governing the entire citizen B&C system. (For more detail, see "The New B&C: What Changed?") While the revisions received almost no media or general public attention when adopted, the restructuring was not a bureaucratic inside job. Rather, the changes made were drawn from 45 recommendations issued by the citizen-led Boards and Commissions Process Review Task Force, which had spent more than a year and a half addressing entrenched problems. "There were instances of boards or commissions that had not met in over a year, some that had insufficient membership for more than a year, and instances where members with excessive absences and those ineligible [still] served – and the boards or commissions continued to exist," recalls Betty Baker, a task force member and chair of the Zoning and Platting Commission. Boards and their members were openly violating their own charters, bylaws, city policies, and rules of order. Some had no apparent reason to go on living. A thorough housecleaning was long overdue, as was instituting a "sunset review" process to determine which boards were still on task and necessary.

Today the Phase I work – the laborious basic cleanup – has been completed, making it possible to finally see the forest for the trees. The question for 2009: Will elected officials and city management forge ahead to tackle the Phase II changes still needed? Or, like other councils before them, will they eschew tough self-scrutiny and sticky politics and let the whole matter slide off the radar?

Revived Recommendations

If the B&C Review Task Force doesn't ring a bell, it could be because it issued its final report in October 2003. Why did it take five years to even partially enact its recommendations? In a word, politics: A tense power struggle has long swirled among elected officials, activist citizens, city management, and staff as to the role and rightful powers of B&C. (For a history of this struggle, see "Hanging Fire: The Tortuous B&C Task Force.") A staff-drafted 2003 ordinance proved so controversial that it never came to council for a vote. So the blue report binder sat on a shelf in the city clerk's office, all but forgotten. Only thanks to the recent intervention and dogged efforts of council aides – Andy Mormon in Lee Leffingwell's office beginning in early 2007, joined by Rich Bailey in Will Wynn's office and Andy Moore in Mike Mar­tinez's office – were the task force recommendations resurrected and (with the help of city staff) finally codified into new council-approved City Code provisions, which fully took effect last August.

"The whole system was so far off track, it was a huge effort just to get the most basic cleanup done," says Bailey. "A few boards were just out of control. Aides deal more directly with boards and commissions, so we were most motivated to get the system cleaned up." Though not universally popular with sitting board members and others, the standardization of board practices, structures, and bylaws – and the tighter alignment of individual council members with B&C members – appears to be a huge step in the right direction. "It's done the key things it was supposed to do: to get the system back on track and focused so that council gets more informed citizen input," said Bailey recently.

So one big set of problems has been addressed and hopefully resolved. For reaching that major milestone, council and staff deserve a round of civic applause. In need of Phase II attention is the remaining set of problems documented by the task force and current participants. As attested to by numerous sources, these five key dilemmas still persist today.

1) Communication gaps: Weaknesses in communication protocols between boards and council, and boards and city staff, prevent Austin from deriving optimal benefit from its B&C system.

2) Disrespect: Existing city practices undervalue and even disrespect the volunteer service, countless donated hours, and professional expertise that essential B&C's provide. The city is missing an opportunity to build greater goodwill toward City Hall among its most engaged citizens.

3) Sacred cows: Some boards are perpetuated as "political pacifiers"; they bloat, bog down, and dilute the overall system. Because there's no official distinction between indispensable and less essential boards, council and staff have no clear way to provide extra support to first-tier boards.

4) No resource management: The city has never accurately tracked or evaluated how city resources and staff time are devoted to the B&C system; it thus can't determine how those resources can be most wisely spent.

5) Fuzzy sunset reviews: The council Audit & Finance Committee gained newly defined powers to review a board, but the exact role of the city auditor and criteria for sunset reviews have not been clearly and publicly defined.

Leffingwell is the only sitting council member who has experienced firsthand the joys and frustrations of board service; he served on the Environmental Board for six years, chairing it for five. In part for that reason, he expressed the heartiest council enthusiasm recently for tackling further system reforms.

"Good work has been done so far, but we definitely need to take on Phase II," said Leffingwell. "I do support and value the board and commission system. I think we ought to do more to make it more effective, by improving communication in both directions."

1) Council Communication

Before certain items (such as a zoning change for a high-rise condo) can get put on a council agenda for a vote, the matter first must go before the relevant boards and commissions for review. Board chairs and staff liaisons send board votes, minutes documenting deliberations, and sometimes letters and other commentary and information upstream to other boards and to council, which weighs it all before voting. At least, that's how it's supposed to work; too often the full content of board reviews don't reach other boards or council members in time or at all.

"Our survey [of sitting board members] showed that communications with the City Council were among the most troubling issues for board members," stated the 2003 task force report. "The problem is serious." From all evidence, it persists. The task force survey found: "Only 18% of respondents believe their recommendations are always communicated to Council in time for Council members to review them before a vote. ... 37% believed their recommendations were usually not communicated to the council in time." This gap guts boards' advisory role; their work does no good if council doesn't hear about it. (The situation does seem to have improved: Leffingwell reported that agenda posting language now almost always includes the recommendations of boards and commissions. "And if it's missing, I ask for it.")

While the recent tighter alignment of all board members with a nominating council member should help communication, council members have hoped improvements would happen organically. As a body, council hasn't adopted any standard communication protocols. Few sitting council members appear to have read (or remember) the meaty and still-relevant section of the task force report (pages 28-36) that speaks to council-board communication issues, offers practical solutions, and provides four specific recommendations – none of which has been formally, fully implemented (see "Further Consideration").

Of course, board recommendations are just that. Martinez noted that effective leadership requires setting priorities, which may not satisfy a given board: "Council doesn't always need to act on, or even respond to, every recommendation. We may have many other recommendations and issues we're dealing with on a daily basis."

Interestingly, active board members surveyed for this article all gave a high grade to their personal communication with their nominating council member but graded overall board-council communication significantly lower. This points to the lack of effective body-to-body protocols. As the task force report noted, "A problem of this scale suggests a widespread breakdown in (or lack of) procedures." Correcting it is beyond the pay scale or authority of a council aide. It requires elected officials, aligned with city management, to commit themselves to doing more – at least for the dozen or so boards they interact with most often – with all the candidness, engagement, and spirit of collaboration they can muster.

1a) Staff Communication

Not surprisingly, citizen advisory boards (aka loudmouthed amateurs) have a long history of rankling city management and departmental brass. An especially delicate part of a board's job is serving as a third-party set of eyes on corresponding city departments. To city staff and management, it can feel like a bunch of meddlers are telling them how to run their businesses; boards have publicly ratted out departmental failings to city management and council. (Witness the Solid Waste Advisory Com­mis­sion's recent call for a management audit of Solid Waste Services and the Animal Advisory Commission's ongoing implied criticism of the animal shelter director.) Boards create work for staffers, who must supply requested information, attend meetings, draft agendas, and (only now) take minutes; staff liaisons understandably try to curtail their board duties, which often are assigned on top of a full-time job. According to current board members, department directors routinely snub requests from board chairs to present their annual plans and budgets despite the obvious relevance of this information to board strategic planning. Some departments, such as Parks and the Austin Public Library, have a reputation for working well with their corresponding boards. But few directors or their staffs voluntarily seek out the third-party perspective that citizen advisers can offer.

If council is serious about getting more value from B&C, it needs to ensure that essential boards get all the information, timely communication, and other support they need. Some commissioners – as volunteers serving their city – find it irritating as hell when paid city staff won't provide them with answers and support and, instead, treat them as unpaid lackeys, demanding that commissioners turn around work in a few hours. When surveyed for this article, commissioners reported that departmental staffers filter (or decline to provide) information flow in both directions – a longstanding, troubling problem. Said Leffingwell of his own experience: "When I was chair of the Environmental Board, I used to get frustrated on a regular basis just trying to get staff to even tell us what happened."

Asked a question taken directly from the 2003 task force survey – "Are you satisfied with the timeliness, completeness, objectivity and clarity of the information you receive from city staff?" – members surveyed recently said that they were not satisfied. They pointed out that without good data on which to base their decisions, boards and commissions do not provide real value in reviewing matters heading toward City Council. Yet council members, unaware of the problem, may believe boards have heard the full story.

One problem: While boards are advisory to council, all liaisons are housed in departments and don't directly facilitate council-board communication. "There is a need for reforming the staff liaison role. ... There's an inherent tension between having a staff liaison who answers to the same departmental management [that] your board is, on some level, overseeing," said Solid Waste Advisory Commission Vice Chair Rick Cofer. (He's also a City Council candidate.) "I'd like to explore creating a one-stop shop for boards and commissions. At the same time, though, you need a staff liaison with a certain amount of area expertise."

"It definitely would be a big help if boards and commissions were monitoring departments more," said Leffingwell. Refer­ring to problems that the Solid Waste Advisory Commission belatedly brought to light regarding departmental delays on single-stream recycling and other issues, he added, "It would have been a big help on Solid Waste."

2) Don't Get No Respect

Most board members report deriving strong satisfaction from civic and board service. But they struggle with a common workplace frustration: lots of responsibility, little real authority. "We feel responsible, so we do and say things that may not be popular," noted one longtime board member, a professional who for years has donated untold hours to city board service, which otherwise could be billed to clients. "We've been asked to be a city official. But we're treated like a pain in the butt."

"Citizen participation in the boards and commissions process is a great example of what we need at City Hall," said Cofer. "But boards and commissions cannot be the place that good ideas go to die."

Several members of vital boards noted with some annoyance that the "cleanup" reforms treated boards primarily as problem children and failed to address how the city can better support its essential, most hard-working commissioners. Basic courtesies aren't extended: For example, boards issuing recommendations to council receive no notification back on how council ultimately voted. Official board letters sent to council typically aren't even acknowledged. (The 2003 task force report contained many specific recommendations for rectifying such communication gaps, recommendations which still appear applicable and sound.) Boards spend weeks or months listening to specific citizen concerns and developing suggestions to better their city yet never hear a word back or see any impact of their work. "It happens with neighborhood-planning teams, too; people get frustrated," sighed Martinez. "They say, 'Why'd you have a public input process if you're not going to do anything with it?'"

Asked which of the unexecuted recommendations in the 2003 report would most benefit the city, task force Chair Bill Spelman pointed to the suggestion to integrate advisory boards into departments' business planning as the greatest "missed opportunity." States the report, "Involving boards in business planning would help to refocus board activities from reactive to proactive, from confrontational to collaborative." Task force recommendation No. 33 says of the board's annual work plan, "This document should be written after a staff presentation about the department's annual budget and business plan." (Board members and chairs interviewed for this article said they had asked directors for such a presentation for years but had simply been ignored.)

Unlike previous city managers, Ott expressed support for recommendation No. 33, saying recently, "That makes a whole lot of sense." In fact, Ott said, he'd like to start asking key boards for input before a department finalizes its budget and business plan.

3) Sacred Cows, A Bloated System

Both Leffingwell and fellow City Council Member Sheryl Cole said they couldn't define exactly what some of Austin's numerous boards even do. "A dozen or so, you interact with them enough to know they're out there," said Leffingwell. "Only when a big issue comes up – like whether to move the animal shelter – do we hear from others. But there are less than a dozen that give us regular recommendations on agenda items." He added: "Those do have a lot of influence; they've already plowed the ground, so we don't need to revisit it. That's how it's supposed to work."

A big reason council has never instituted board-communication policies is the sheer volume of citizen advisory groups. While all board members consider their own mission top-of-the-list – that's why they volunteer their time – the reality of a council member's or aide's overburdened bad-day schedule can make the chorus of 400 to 500 civic voices grate like an irritating cacophony. (Not to mention the shrieking of self-appointed council watchdogs, umpteen neighborhood associations, 28 short-term advisory bodies, and a host of other squeaky wheels.)

Several council members and aides thought new communication protocols could be tested first with a small subset of workhorse boards that most frequently offer advice on council decisions. ("But there needs to be some rationale for how you pick them," warned Cole.) Although not officially acknowledged, there's a caste system to the boards and commissions system. Council members hold closer the boards that correspond to major city departments, functions, and utilities. A short list of essential "first-tier" B&C might include Planning, Zoning and Platting, Design, Environmental, Parks and Recreation, Electric Utility, Solid Waste, and Water and Wastewater. Reviews and recommendations conducted by their members (who often bring professional expertise to technical and complex issues) are seen as unquestionably valuable by council members. "They give us invaluable help evaluating multimillion-dollar deals. If I get a call from my Electric Utility commissioner, I sit up and take notice," said Cole, citing as an example the weight given the Electric Utility Commission's positive recommendation on a contract to purchase biomass energy. (Also notably powerful is the sovereign Board of Adjustment; it can grant certain development variances, such as height increases, that never go to council.)

Close behind is a group of "second-tier" boards, which also hear community issues (so that council doesn't have to) and provide useful if less frequent early-warning recommendations on council-agenda matters. A short list might include Airport, Arts, Board of Adjustment, Music, Historic Landmark, Library, Urban Forestry, and Urban Transportation. That comes to 16 boards, with at least seven members each – as many as council offices realistically can keep up with. Consigned by necessity to the muddy "third tier" are the two dozen or so remaining boards. (A few, who've proven to be royal pains or are rarely heard from, are relegated to a bottom caste.)

In truth, without stronger communication measures, Austin long ago passed a tipping point: We have too many advisory groups of all kinds competing for limited council attention and city resources. But asked if the list should perhaps be pared down, every source interviewed jumped immediately to the political perils of any such conversation in our input-obsessed city. As one city staffer put it: "Citizen volunteers really, really care. They're doing this work because they're mission-driven. The first time a board gets recommended for possible elimination, all the citizens who care will suddenly come out of the woodwork!"

4) No Resource Management

Council members fear community censure and voter reprisals from even raising the issue of a board's value. That's why, to date, the city has never even dared to assess its true costs to staff and operate the B&C system – a fundamental management practice for every other municipal operation. "I don't want to say we must streamline the system and make it more efficient," said Martinez. "It becomes delicate, because it's about governance and public input to council on every policy decision we make. To folks who care, it's critical." Yet in 2009, a budget year in which possible city layoffs and hiring freezes loom, scrutinizing each board's demands on staff time makes basic management sense. As chair of the powerful council Audit and Finance Committee, Sheryl Cole recently expressed cautious support for pursuing an efficiency audit of B&C.

"It seems to me we need to ask a fundamental question: Do we need all of them?" said City Manager Marc Ott, while conceding the political difficulties for council. (Witness members' lack of nerve, in the end, when they tried to eliminate the Renaissance Market Com­mis­sion last year; the board was basically stripped of duties yet allowed to persist.) "I'm not speaking to any one board or commission, but could any be combined, merged, or dissolved?" asked Ott, while noting that it's council's role to set policy for such reviews. "Which remain viable and relevant today? Is there a viable business case to be made, and what does that analysis look like?" Asked who would bell the cat, Ott said, "Since boards are advisory to council, the independent council-appointed auditor would be the right person to do it."

"I'm willing to ask my council aide to get with the other council aides and do it soon," said Leffingwell of trying to assess direct costs for the B&C system (recommendation No. 32), "so that the impact on next year's budget can be assessed." But Assistant City Auditor C'Anne Daugherty cautioned that an accurate accounting of costs would require new data-collection procedures for both staff time and hard costs: "You'd have to start today, collecting the information to allow you to assess costs next year."

5) Sunset Reviews

Recommended by the 2003 task force report (and the 1999 MGT study) are sunset reviews "modeled in part after the sunset review process that the State of Texas uses to determine whether state agencies should be continued or abolished, and whether their functions should be changed or combined with another agency." The report stated such reviews "can provide clearer expectations for boards, dramatically increasing the likelihood that boards will provide value to the City ... as well as provide for a continuing check on boards that may have become inactive or redundant. In addition, it noted that reviews "can give Council and the public a greater appreciation for all of the work volunteers do for the city of Austin." A recommendation that the city auditor perform sunset reviews foundered backstage and never formally reached the council.

No doubt to avoid another such breakdown, the 2008 ordinance enacted by council did establish a review process – but it omits any "sunset review" terminology and is generally fuzzy on the details. Absent is a specific directive that the city auditor's office shall conduct a review, nor are criteria named. Instead, a council Audit and Finance Com­mittee is given the power to annually designate certain boards required to conduct an internal review and then provide a report. The committee is to review the materials provided – work plans, annual reports, agendas, and minutes of all meetings – then "make recommendations to council on the continued need for and role of each board." (Based on ... what exactly?) The code also says, "The committee may review a board audited by the city auditor," yet it is silent on what would trigger such an audit.

In fact, the powerful Audit and Finance Com­mit­tee (Leffingwell, Martinez, Cole, and Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken) has asked 20 boards to initiate an internal review. That's nearly half the boards governed by City Code. The initial review of the voluminous materials submitted last year (by 18 of the 20) is being performed by Daugherty – who, as it happens, served on the B&C task force. "Don't call it an audit; it's a review!" she emphasized. She said the city auditor's office will make recommendations to council as to whether it finds any evidence of need for a true audit. (On Jan. 15, longtime city auditor Steve Morgan announced his retirement at the end of February, which could cause delays.) What might such evidence include? She cited a board operating outside its defined mission, not fulfilling its mission, not meeting regularly, or not accomplishing its work plan.

(Of course, council also has the latitude to expand or redefine a board's mission, to correspond to the work it has done or wants to take on. For example, the Animal Advisory Com­mission has sought latitude to broadly address issues of animal welfare, and just last week its charge was slightly expanded.)

Rich Bailey, Mayor Will Wynn's chief of staff, predicted that any audits would begin only after August 2009, when the new ordinance will have been effective for a full year. He anticipated that only a few problematic boards would be audited. Bailey saw the new ordinance, and the closely watched challenge to the Renaissance Market Commission's continued existence last year, as having communicated the essential message: "You'll be audited and could be disbanded if you stray outside your mission." As the task force report noted, the primary benefit of having an audit process is to motivate boards to do their jobs properly in the first place – not to trigger one.

But Leffingwell expressed support for pursuing an automatic rotation of audits or true sunset reviews for all boards: "There should be a sunset provision requiring one for renewal." He added: "I greatly value citizen input and advice. If some boards are done away with, for sound business management reasons, that takes nothing away."

Perhaps the most frustrating thing a city can do is to offer citizens a role in governance then fail to deliver on the hopes and expectations created. In its past failures to make the boards and commissions system optimally functional (ensuring that members feel heard, respected, and valued), the city has missed an opportunity to build greater goodwill among its most engaged citizens – and the community at large – toward City Hall. But that opportunity still remains.

Last year, leading his first city budget process, Ott took the unprecedented step of engaging council members far earlier in the budget-drafting process. For 2009, he said, he's open to doing the same thing with boards. "I'm thinking about th.pose conversations occurring early on – when a board relates directly to a department – during preliminary discussions about the next fiscal year," he said. "It's part of my commitment to transparency and to try to rebuild a foundation of trust in this city." In the end, that's what citizen engagement is all about.

To read about the B&C system's history and not-always-so-friendly relationship with city staff, see the sidebar, "Hanging Fire: The Tortuous B&C Task Force."

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Boards and Commissions, Mike Martinez, Lee Leffingwell, City Council, Marc Ott

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