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Council Looks to Curtail City Commissions By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday May 13, 2005

A battle is brewing over a plan to scale back Berkeley’s 44 citizen commissions. 

In an effort to free up time for city staff to complete other projects, Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Linda Maio have proposed reducing the number of meetings for 28 commissions. 

“There have been so many cutbacks to staff. We have way more work for them to do than we have resources to do it,” Maio said. 

The proposal, up for debate at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, has already drawn fire from councilmembers on the left and from affected commissioners. 

“What’s needed is a surgeon’s scalpel, not a butcher’s knife,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. He argued that fewer commission meetings would exclude citizens from bringing forth policy initiatives and center more power in the hands of the city manager and politicians. 

“One thing that contributes to the problem is the sometimes adversarial nature [of dealings] between the staff and the commissions,” said Paul Kamen, chair of the Waterfront Commission. “A lot of the work the staff considers support is really an effort to influence the commissions. A much more efficient way to save time is to reduce support that commissions don’t need and in some cases don’t want.” 

For decades city managers have proposed reducing commissions and commission meetings, to which they must devote employees, with no success. On Tuesday, City Manager Phil Kamlarz will again place on the agenda a competing proposal to slash more commission meetings than called for under the Bates-Maio plan. 

City commissioners, appointed by councilmembers, are charged with debating policies relevant to their commissions and reviewing proposals at the council’s request. 

The Bates-Maio plan would scale back 12 commission schedules from 11 to eight meetings a year and reduce another 11 commissions to six meetings. It also calls for the Disaster Council and the Fire Safety Commission to be merged. Commissions that are required by city statute or have a quasi-judicial role, like the Planning Commission and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, would continue to keep their current schedules. Commissions could petition the council to hold additional meetings. 

Under the city manager’s proposal commissions would be cut further with many commissions having meetings reduced from every month to every other month or every three months. 

Budget cuts that have reduced the city staff by 10 percent over past few years have been the driving force behind the latest move to scale back commission meetings, Maio said. 

“[Commissions] have been a third rail of Berkeley politics, but the budget situation has made us look at it again,” Maio said. “This is not business as usual.” 

In arguing for commission cutbacks this year, city leaders have focused more on estimated savings in staff time than on money. High ranking city staff, who fill most of the commission secretary posts, do not get paid overtime and do not qualify for compensation time for running commission meetings. 

According to Kamlarz’s report, his proposal would save 5,310 staff hours a year—equal to roughly two city employees. Those estimates come from a survey of commission secretaries rather than a detailed analysis, Assistant City Manager Arrietta Chakos said.  

According to the report, the Zoning Adjustment Board, which meets twice a month, requires 20 hours of staff time a month, while the Parks and Recreation Commission, which meets once a month, requires 89 hours of staff time a month and the Waterfront Commission, which also meets once a month, requires 71 hours of staff time. 

“There is no way we require that much staff time for basic support functions,” Waterfront Commission Chair Kamen said. He said that the council should cap the number of hours staff is allowed to devote to commissions. 

Steve Freedkin, the chair of the Peace and Justice Commission, predicted that if the council cut down on its meetings, work that the commission handles would then be foisted on the council. He said his commission’s proposal to increase efficiency by taking its own meeting minutes found little support in City Hall. 

“We can’t really rely on the volunteers,” Bates said. “We’re afraid things will slip through the cracks.” 

There is no debate that Berkeley is a state leader when it comes to citizen commissions. Oakland, which has nearly four times more people, has 22 commissions, and Santa Cruz, which has about half the population, has 16. The closest parallel might be Madison, Wis., home to the University of Wisconsin. That city of a little over 100,000 residents also has 44 citizen commissions, including a Grocery Store Committee and a Community Gardening Committee, which meets once a month. 

Berkeley experienced a growth of commissions from 1978 through 1984, according to former Councilmember Don Jelinek, when progressive Mayor Gus Newport faced a moderate majority on the City Council. Progressives couldn’t do much without a council majority, so commissions became a way to advance their agenda, Jelinek recalled.  

“People were dying to get on these commissions,” he said.  

When the progressives regained the council majority in 1984, the interest in commissions waned, Jelinek said. 

“We went from meetings that were almost like civil wars over who would get what post, to not being able to fill the commissions at all,” he said.  

The Bates-Maio plan calls for the following commissions to hold eight meetings a year: Civic Arts, Community Environmental Advisory, Community Health, Disaster and Fire Safety, Energy, Fair Campaign Practices, Homeless, Human Welfare, Parks and Recreation, Peace and Justice, Transportation and Waterfront. 

The following commissions would be reduced to six meetings a year under the Bates-Maio plan: Aging, Disability, Early Childhood Development, Humane, Labor, Mental Health, Public Works, Commission on the Status of Women, Solid Waste, West Berkeley Project Area, and Youth.