Hanging Fire: The Tortuous B&C Task Force

Given the awkward third-party role of boards in city governance, it's not surprising that their restructuring has enacted, in the words of mayoral aide Rich Bailey, "a long and tortured history." One hard-working member of the 2001-2003 Boards and Commissions Process Review Task Force ruefully referred to the experience of serving as "a forced march through the briar patch." Revisiting this prickly chapter is instructive as a case study in how the city often appoints consultants or citizen task forces to review issues and produce recommendations – then fails to act on politically difficult findings for lack of council consensus.

A full decade ago, in March 1999, city consultant MGT of America issued an initial management study on the B&C system. According to Bill Spelman – B&C task force chair, former City Council member, and current council candidate – MGT's reform recommendations were determined by city officials to be "not politically viable." So in April 2001, then-Council Member Will Wynn led the council in creating a new community task force to revisit the MGT findings. The volunteer group, which included many board members as well as city staffers, worked for 18 months on the duties assigned by council: a survey of board members to assess their concerns, a review of the overall system and its structure, policies and procedures, management/staffing/cost issues, and more. In October 2003, the task force issued a final report, containing 45 formal recommendations, as well as the survey results. It's still available at the city clerk's office.

Based on interviews with several participants (who requested anonymity), council had to negotiate with then-City Manager Jesus Garza to appoint a task force at all. No wonder: Its survey revealed that "some board members believed that the (previous) City Manager [Garza] was simply not passing on reports he disagreed with," and they cited many specific incidents. Garza reportedly was cool to B&C's meddling in departmental business and in his management of the city. As the 2003 report notes, "The previous City Manager argued in a public council meeting that his office was justified in withholding recommendations with which he or his staff disagreed." (Current City Manager Marc Ott, when shown this passage in the report, said he would never withhold a board's recommendations from council.)

Many wanted Garza named as a key reason B&C weren't functioning well. According to one city staffer, the city manager had repeatedly communicated, "We don't have to send staff to their meetings, we don't have to keep their minutes, and we don't have to do what they say." But the report avoided pointing the finger at Garza; disappointed board and community members then went complaining to council offices about the report.

"Though I have served on various task forces and commissions, that task force would be the absolute worst," remembers Betty Baker, who chairs Zoning and Platting. "Fact is – boards and commissions allow council members to 'reward' their constituents, and the ability to eliminate, reduce or combine them does not appear to be remotely possible."

When Toby Futrell became city manager, she and her Deputy City Manager Joe Canales exerted their own controlling influence on the task force and its findings. Some recommendations were withheld because Futrell and Canales didn't find them acceptable, or wanted to protect city staff from taking on more work. (For example, language was cut defining B&C's role as advisory to city staff, in addition to council. And no recommendations say staff should be formally required to do specific tasks – because that language was edited out.)

Why was management able to exert such control over a council-appointed task force? In part because few council members truly cared about optimizing the B&C system; rather, they were motivated to get rid of problems and rein in the "pain-in-the-ass" elements. Task force members – particularly those who were B&C members – grew frustrated.

The Chronicle's Mike Clark-Madison reported in October 2003: "The city's 'commission commission' – the Board and Commission Process Review Task Force – may have officially cratered last week. City legal staff presented the task force at its final meeting (more than two years after its inception), with a draft ordinance for cleaning up the city's unwieldy board-and-commission system – but incorporated almost none of the dozens of recommendations made in the task force's 58-page report. The task force voted to reject the draft ordinance and plead directly to the council." It was a mutiny against the city manager, in part, but council wasn't brave enough to wade into that deep water. As Spelman remembers it, no one on council even wanted to see the PowerPoint he'd put together on the report, as task force chair. Another task force member said, "Council members wanted to say they supported it, but when the time came to do something, they didn't."

Spelman said he was told by a council aide, "This report has absolutely no traction in this building." The recommendations foundered. Queasy about displeasing either community activists or high-ranking city staff, council members couldn't reach consensus. The city council aides heading up the project left, and the effort died. Pursuing the substantive issues raised was deemed too controversial, so the material in the report – as with the MGT report before it – was largely ignored for the next four years. (City Clerk Shirley Gentry did initiate some reforms on her own, most notably training for new board members in their duties.) Nothing further was pursued: No sunset provisions truly requiring boards to justify their existence. No accurate measure of what it costs the city to operate the system and individual boards. No peer review of what other cities do.

Meanwhile, month after month and agenda after agenda, more than 500 of Austin's most engaged citizens kept volunteering their time to serve their city. Council's inaction served to feed community cynicism and demands to "take back our government." Eventually a braver council, less cowed by the current city management, did finally enact reforms in late 2007-2008.

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