Reforming City Boards and Commissions

Of all the underutilized assets available to Scottsdale City Government, none is more so than city Boards and Commissions.

Board members and commissioners are appointed to bring their special expertise and insight to bear on issues facing the city, to incorporate input from residents, and to make recommendations to the City Council as to how best to address those issues.

The city accepts applications from interested volunteers, makes nominations from among those, then interviews the nominees before making appointments to fill openings. The appointments are made by majority vote of the Council. I call this process “general appointments.”You can see the current vacancies and information on how to apply on the City’s Board and Commission Vacancies page.

I also strongly encourage you to read the Board and Commission Members’ Tool Book, to help you understand the roles and responsibilities of our Boards and Commissions.

For a variety of reasons (some explored below) this appointment paradigm sets the stage for dysfunction.

During the 2008 city council campaign and shortly after his election, Mayor Jim Lane acknowledged that the role and function of the city’s boards and commissions was not being fulfilled. He promised he’d fix this, and instituted an audit and review of our boards and commissions. Those results were incorporated into a Council-approved ordinance to implement those changes. Unfortunately, many of the ‘reforms’ don’t make sense, and the most important one–a change to direct appointments–isn’t even addressed.

For years I have advocated direct appointments. The workload on the individual council members is very high (salary restructuring is another topic) and the level of staff support is very low. Being able to appoint their own representatives to each board and commission would help individual council members to ensure the issues coming through that board or commission are fully explored to their satisfaction BEFORE those issues reach the Council for final decision. There would be very little if any cost associated with this realignment.

Personal and direct appointments would also help foster a direct line of communication between the appointee and the council member who appointed them.

Most importantly, it would also provide the residents with a direct line of accountability between those two people. If a board member or commissioner doesn’t do justice to resident input, they can complain to his or her appointing council member…and ultimately vote them out of office if they don’t get satisfaction.

Direct appointments won’t fix every problem with every board or commission. Having served on two, I can tell you from personal experience that if you have a good group of civic minded volunteers on a board or commission, it will function pretty well regardless of how the members are appointed. I cite the Airport Advisory Commission as perhaps the best example. Fortunately, most of the issues that come before the AAC are not political in nature, and that helps.

On the other hand, if not adequately supported by the Council and our charter officers (in particular the city manager and the city attorney), even a directly appointed board or commission can turn into a knife fight. This is particularly true where the issues are highly politicized. The most visible example of this situation is the recently-euthanized CityCable Channel 11 Programming Commission. I would say that while my term on this commission was very brain damaging, we had a VERY healthy debate that wrung out most of the issues the commission was formed to address…probably more so than just about any board or commission in Scottsdale’s history.

Naturally, this made a lot of folks uncomfortable and a political decision was made by the Council majority, city manager, and city attorney to kill off the commission under the guise that its work was done…this in spite of the fact that a majority of commissioners voted (at what would turn out to be our last meeting) to continue discussion of the issues into the future.

In light of my belief that direct appointments would address many of the short comings of our boards and commissions structure, here are MY alternative to changes in the structure and mechanics of our boards and commissions:

  1. Simultaneous service and term limits. NO. Implement direct appointments instead. Let the council member choose whoever he or she wants. If  a really smart, really dedicated applicant can successfully cover serving on more than one public body and the council member is satisfied with the job they are doing, why limit the number of public bodies? Further, the term limit is automatic with every four year election. If the council member isn’t re-elected, the new council member can appoint whomever they desire…or keep the old appointee as long as they like, for continuity or because of proven performance.
  2. Disqualifications. NO. Implement direct appointments instead. If a council member is dumb enough to appoint an ex-con, they can be prepared to suffer the wrath of the residents…or provide a damned good reason. With regard to the prohibition against someone who has filed suit against the city–beyond the fact that this provision might as well have my name on it because it is a direct and self-serving attempt by the mayor to remove me from the Airport Commission–I’m not even sure this is legal.
  3. Absence/Tardy policy. NO. Implement direct appointments instead. If an appointee is not performing to the standards of his or her appointer, that council member can appoint someone else.
  4. Membership Cap, aka, Size limits. YES. The size of each board or commission should mirror the size of the city council…and it would under direct appointments. The McDowell Road task force and the Downtown Task Force proved (as if we needed proof) that creating a huge public body just makes the mess bigger.
  5. Nepotism. NO. This is aimed at former councilman Wayne Ecton who appointed his wife to the (now defunct) direct-appointment Budget Review Commission; and to council member Lisa Borowsky who appointed her father. I happen to think Martha Ecton is likable…but Councilman Ecton caught some flack for it. Council member Borowsky caught some flack, too, but a little less because her father is a pretty well-known businessman who IS sharp. For both council members, the appointees served to their satisfaction, everyone knew exactly who appointed them, and the council members felt it was worth the flack. Suzanne Klapp even said she was going to appoint herself to this commission…I think that would be the height of nepotism, not to mention pretty much defeating the purpose of having such a commission (which may have been her ultimate goal), but it ought to be her right to do so.