A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Meta-Advice for Advisory Boards

One time, many years ago, I was invited to address a Manatee County Advisory Board. While at the meeting a Manatee County Commissioner showed up and proceeded to advise the advisory group what he thought they should do. In fact, I thought he was more or less telling them what to do. Perhaps puckishly, I opined that in my county the advisory boards provided advice to the county commission and not vice versa. I haven’t been invited back.
The role of advisory boards is complicated, involving careful balancing between citizens, staff, and elected officials, but let me offer several comments triggered by recent developments.

There is no question that providing support for advisory boards represent a significant staff commitment. Consequently, real budget pressures have resulted in a number of boards, including two I serve on, being cut back from monthly to bi-monthly (six times a year) meetings. The total number of boards has been cut back more than half from its peak.

And if one of those meetings is canceled, as recently happened with the Parks Advisory and Recreation Council  (PARC) then a third of a year elapses between meetings –- plenty of time to lose the thread of whatever was important at the previous meeting. To be honest, I supported the cancellation of that meeting for selfish reasons - I had an important conflict that day and didn’t want to be in trouble for missing too many PARC meetings.  

One unintended consequence of the switch to six meetings a year is the effect on the requirement to maintain a 75% attendance record. When we met every month, I didn't worry about missing a meeting every now and then when something came up. With twelve meetings a year, one could miss three meetings and still be in good graces. Now if you miss more than one you are in trouble. I’m not sure why, but it was easier for me to attend nine out of twelve than five out of six, even though the total number of meetings was nearly doubled. Go figure.

I am told the numbers have been crunched and cutting the number of meetings in half demonstrably reduces staff burden, resulting in irrefutable and significant dollar savings. I'm sure it saves money -- just imagine how much more could be saved if we only met four, or three, or even two times a year! In fact, I believe some governments have achieved tremendous savings by not having any public input whatsoever.

In my opinion, meeting cutbacks have resulted in a false economy because the effectiveness and utility of the every-two-month boards has been greatly compromised. That's because they meet so infrequently, while the Commission, of necessity, moves on with its work. The result, all too frequently, is that the Advisory Boards and the Commission are out of sync.

So perhaps if PARC had met in July we would have had a chance of offer perspective on commercial signs at Venice Parks, conflicts at the mangrove tunnels of South Lido, and a proposal to charge for camping at the Carleton Reserve. But we didn’t meet and those matters of some general public interest and clear PARC interest went to the County Commission without the benefit of PARC consideration.

Likewise the County Commission just reallocated $18.5 million to reduce debt owed by the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program, a move I suspect the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Program Oversight Committee would have supported, had we met since June 2nd. But we didn’t meet and one has to wonder exactly where the Oversight lies?

I see three reasons why appropriate advisory boards need to be in the loop that connects staff to the the County Commission. First, and most obviously, that is why the advisory boards exist-- to advise the County Commission - skipping the advisory boards begs the question of why they even exist. 

Second, (and this is why I believe they were created) it provides a venue for additional insight,  consideration, and affirmation, which helps the Commission know if they are on the right track. Policy vetting by advisory boards should help ensure that recommendations going to the board reflect community perspective as well as the professional opinion of staff.

Finally, no one likes being blindsided -- picking up a newspaper and reading for the first time about an action you supposed to be informed about and involved in is not pleasant. Keeping advisory board members advised should be common courtesy.

Having served on County and City advisory boards for more than half my life, I am willing to ask if there may not be a better way to solicit informed issue-specific public opinion. One approach being tried is "wikis". 

The County currently is soliciting input regarding Water Efficient Landscaping using a wiki

In addition, I've been wondering if periodic "congresses" or other  intermittent topic-driven assemblies might not enable more people to participate and produce better results with less staff involvement. The Commission and staff could identify issues and opportunities that need attention, brief white papers addressing the agenda could be drafted and circulated electronically, and those concerned could convene and thrash things out in one day (a Saturday?) instead of spreading the process over months. This could increase participation and move policy along in focused pulses rather than unfolding in slow motion. 

In the meantime I serve on three active County advisory bodies and one (dealing with Florida Scrub Jays) that just sort of fizzled out with no final meeting, clear resolution or (suitable for framing?) certificate of service. So based on my present experience of serving on somewhere near one tenth of all Sarasota county advisory boards, let me make some principled suggestions:

1) Any matter going to the County Commission related to a topic under the purview of a relevant advisory board should be considered in advance by the advisory board. If it isn't, the County Commissioners should feel empowered to ask why it wasn't.

2) If it is simply not possible to meet, the advisory board members should get a courtesy notification in advance that the matter is headed to the Commission without their collective input.

3) Matters that may head to the County Commission should come before advisory boards at the earliest possible stages so that the expertise and common sense of the board members might complement that of staff rather run the risk of contradicting staff or being confronted with proposals that went from "too soon to tell" to "too late to change" between meetings.

4) Advisory Boards need to meet frequently enough to keep pace with the County Commission. Timely input is crucial to the Commission. If advisory boards are not weighing in on items going the the board, something is wrong with the process.

5) Attendance standards should be revisited. Perhaps nine out of the previous 12 meetings is a standard that would retain the 75% threshold, but allow a member serving on a bi-monthly committee to miss two meetings in one calendar year. 

6) The County, both the commission and the advisory boards and staff, need to be open to adjustments both in how frequently boards meet and whether there might be better ways to used committed and knowledgable stakeholders to advise the board.

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