Blogging Bayport Alameda

July 28, 2011

Task Force field

Filed under: Alameda, City Council, Public Resources — Lauren Do @ 6:08 am

It’s super easy to laugh at the foibles of a large City like San Francisco.   A recent SF Weekly article about the inefficiencies of San Francisco’s numerous Boards, Commissions, and Task Forces makes you glad that Alameda seems positively streamlined in comparison.


San Francisco doesn’t know how many commissions, committees, task forces, or working groups it has. The clerk of the board monitors 96. The mayor’s office keeps tabs on 97. A database lists 116 citizen bodies — a total well over double that found in other large cities in California and nationwide.

Not only is the city not counting its commissions, it’s not accounting for them. This has led to duplication and inefficiency. San Francisco prides itself on allowing everyone to talk (and talk and talk).

But it does guarantee a price tag. A recent analysis revealed that servicing San Francisco’s battalion of commissions requires scores of thousands of hours of city employees’ working time, with some commission secretaries being compensated nearly $200,000 a year. Mass public input is costing millions of dollars — and, in many cases, actually resulting in an entrenchment of the bureaucratic status quo.

It’s a really interesting article and worth a read.

Alameda recently attempted to reign in its own Boards and Commissions but I think the exercise ended up losing focus.  I was underwhelmed by the process — so far — that has been initiated by the City Council subcommittee of Vice Mayor Rob Bonta and Councilmember Doug deHaan.   The problem appears to be that neither of them seem to be that invested in the Boards and Commissions and so just went along with the staff suggestions on how to move forward with the consolidation process.

While I think that Boards and Commissions — and by extension Task Forces and Committee  — can be an important tool for cities, I also think they can be inefficient and worse, ineffective.   Which then means they are just a waste of time for everyone involved.

For example, the Transportation Commission, which I believe was created with every intention of doing good work examining transportation projects in Alameda and providing well thought out comments from citizen commissioners with a strong interest and/or expertise in the matter.   Within the past two years that Commission has been used not for the purpose it was created but as yet another place where City Staff could bring a dog and pony show to be able to report that they “brought it to the Transportation Commission.”

Another example, the Fiscal Sustainability Committee, which I was super excited about produced a well written report on the state of the long term outlook of the City’s finances, but never actually produced any recommendations that could have been adopted into action or made into policy.  Which would have been, you know, useful.

The problem with these Commissions, Boards, Committees, and Task Forces is that they end up becoming a solution in and of itself.   Such as, what have you done about transparency in the City?   Oh, we created as Task Force.   Or, what have you done about tackling the concerns of young people in the City?  Oh, we have a Youth Commission.  What have you done about the financial state of the City?  Oh, we formed a Committee.  And so on and so forth.   If the Commission, Board, Committee, or Task Force is just around to make people feel good about creating something then it’s not really doing much other than appeasing folks.

What I was hoping that the Council sub-committee was going to do was — as ironic as this sounds — create a limited scope committee — and by limited scope, I’m really talking about time — to review all the committees and produce a report that first and foremost laid out the point of having Boards and Commissions in the first place.   For Boards and Commissions that were not charter created to understand what the purpose of every other Board and Commission is and based on that whether or not that Board and/or Commission is redundant or duplicated elsewhere.    Then after we figure out what the hell it is the Boards and Commission actually do, then work on what to do with them.    Also, as part of this, there needs to be a policy recommendation about the creation of new Committees and Boards — and their related brethren the Task Force and Committee (of any ribboned color)  — so that those do not get abused by those looking to score some cheap political points with certain factions within the City at the expense of actually doing something.    John Knox White actually wrote about this when the topic came up initially at the City Council and articulated it much better than I can.

Right now, the City is approaching the subject in terms of staff hours and how much it costs to them — which is an important factor, but not the only factor in terms of getting a handle around this issue.

It’s not too late to make Alameda’s exercise in examining its Boards and Commissions a meaningful effort, but it will require someone actually caring about ensuring that the Boards and Commissions are actually effective bodies as opposed to just a campaign slogan or an easy soundbyte.   And it starts with not creating some cheesy blue ribbon committee every time someone gets it into their head that a cheesy blue ribbon committee should be formulated.   It starts with the City, and more importantly the City Council, understanding why and when Boards, Commission, Task Forces, and Committees should come into existence.



  1. Instead of forming a committee to investigate committees (et al), let’s just eliminate them all. Then reinstate those the council deems worthy by vote of the council…with the caveat that each committee (et al) must be reinstated by each new council.

    Comment by Jack Richard — July 28, 2011 @ 8:19 am

  2. Or, Jack, we could limit the Boards & Commisions to those defined by the 1937 City Charter. The City staff’s analysis of the staff time used (wasted) by the various Bs & Cs is very interesting. 126 hours for the Transpo Commish ALONE? Doesn’t seem possible/is that a math error?

    Comment by alameda vigilante — July 28, 2011 @ 9:46 am

  3. 1: One problem with Jack’s idea is that it would violate the City Charter since some boards such as the Planning Board are mandated by the charter rather than by City Council resolution. Second, it is a meataxe approach to a problem that requires a more refined and detailed solution specific to each board, commission and task force.

    The Transportation Commission (TC) was functionally gutted for over a year under Mayor Johnson when she deliberately failed to appoint new members to the TC for months on end, as John Knox White also documented. Without a quorum the TC could not approve minutes, vote on pending projects, or otherwise conduct business for months on end. Thankfully Mayor Gilmore remedied this orchestrated dysfunction early in 2011.

    The TC offered tremendous value to the City of Alameda during its first 8 years by saving Alameda from major transit service cuts (several times, because AC Transit had to cut its budget more than once) and by approving several major initiatives to revamp transportation policy. Most notable of these was the city’s new Transportation Master Plan, which returns Alameda’s transportation planning and management to a more balanced multi-modal approach utilizing a grid system rather than culs-de-sac. It also updated the master plans for transit and bikes (2010) while producing the city’s first-ever Pedestrian Master Plan (2008). Abolishing the TC would once again overburden the Planning Board with transportation issues it has neither the time nor the expertise to be able to handle. (This was one of the reasons the TC was created in 2002.)

    As noted by many public speakers and by council members in recent months, the boards and commissions provide valuable expertise and perspectives to city decision making as well as broadening democratic participation in city government. Boards and commissions also hear many appeals and help solve problems that otherwise would have to be heard by the City Council, adding to its work load and slowing its deliberations on other matters.

    Comment by Jon Spangler — July 28, 2011 @ 9:59 am

  4. 2: The staff time allocated to support boards and commissions (Alameda Vigilante cites 126 hours for the Transportation Commission (TC)) is not, as AV and others have implied, a waste of staff time and resources. (It does represent in many cases two staff members attending TC and subcommittee meetings because of the breadth of the topics covered.)

    Rather, it is a worthwhile investment in creative problem solving, policy development, city governance, and de facto democracy that offers significant returns on that investment of staff preparation and presentation time.

    Board and commission members provide hundreds of hours of professional expertise to their community at no charge to the city. As I mentioned in my #3, this results in significant and tangible benefit to the city, often at considerable savings, and results in specific policies and documents tailored to Alameda’s unique conditions.

    The Transportation Commission’s creation of a significant new policy document, the Transportation Master Plan, was the result of many months of research, analysis, writing, and editing. This work was done not just by the staff but by members of the TC whose extensive and hands-on collaborative involvement drove the process. The TC subcommittee(s) that developed the initial draft also involved stakeholders from throughout Alameda who added their expertise – again, at no cost to the City of Alameda other than the staff time required to support those meetings, where a great deal of work was done.

    The issue of how much staff time the City of Alameda is allocating to boards and commissions should not be seen as simply an expense, but rather an investment, one that usually yields significant net returns to our community, especially when compared to the costs of hiring outside consultants to formulate policies or programs of inevitably lesser quality instead. Having local residents create the best policies and make the best decisions for the community in which they live and work is, IMHO, a far better deal and a much wiser investment for us to make.

    Comment by Jon Spangler — July 28, 2011 @ 11:31 am

  5. Jon, apparently LD doesn’t agree with you about the TC, calling it a vehicle for pooch and mare shows.

    Vigi, obviously commissions called for by the Charter must be formed by the council. But with a blank slate the new council can place who they want on both the required commisses and the feel good commisses.

    Comment by Jack Richard — July 28, 2011 @ 11:38 am

  6. The TC hours were an extreme mis-calculation in that memo. Staff acknowledged the error at the meeting.

    Comment by John Knox White — July 28, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

  7.      “A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.”
     Barnett Cocks

    Comment by Denise Shelton — July 28, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

  8. 7 Duck, he may pull the trigger.

    Comment by Jack Richard — July 28, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

  9. 5. HAB is in the Charter. I dare you to a) go sit through a meeting and b) get a real estimate for staff time. The meetings were 12 a year until the economy hit the fan, and despite efforts to keep them short they usually lasted about 3 hours, staff time more. That’s at least 36 hours staff time right there. There was always one staff person dedicated to HAB meetings, but usually others who presented various appeals or cases before HAB. 126 hours a year for PB would be nothing. Is that number per month or something? Citizens pay huge fees like $600 a pop for the privilege of coming to be tortured by HAB review. We had people in tears over the stress of being brought back more than once and over having their construction halted. One time a contractor demolished most of the front wall of a building in order to properly retrofit the sheer ply and seismic hardware called for by the engineer, but the plan didn’t allow that much demo, so the inspector stopped the job for us to review which must have taken at least two weeks. Ultimately we authorized them to proceed if they promised to restore new to match old, but the contractor and owner were bleeding money. It was a fire repair and the owners were living in a hotel. If Alameda Vigilante wants to raise eyebrows, why pick on TC when you can start with Golden Cow like HAB? Could it be an extreme prejudice against the agenda of TC and people associated with it like JKW?

    Comment by M.I. — July 28, 2011 @ 5:13 pm

  10. Bernie cocks and M.I takes aim at the cow in the culdesac.

    Comment by Jack Richard — July 28, 2011 @ 5:55 pm

  11. 10

    Is Cow tipping the new Sport ?

    Comment by John — July 29, 2011 @ 9:26 am

  12. 5: When the TC lost its quorum and most of its members were not replaced, all it COULD do was to function as a “dog and pony show,” because it could no longer conduct official business or fulfill its mission. (It goes without saying that it lost its independence with its inability to suggest or approve policies that might challenge or change city practices.)

    I am convinced that this was precisely what former MayorBeverly Johnson intended when she deliberately failed to fill the vacancies on the TC or on other commissions: even while she was campaigning for supervisor on the basis of voting for the TC in 2002 she ignored valid applications from qualified applicants. There is no other explanation I can imagine than that she wanted to gut the TC: rendering it simply a toothless and dysfunctional “dog and pony show” with 2-3 members and no authority was a way to incapacitate it and set up evaluations just like Lauren’s.

    I challenged her deliberate failure to fill those vacancies several times in open City Council sessions and she never said one word about why she had made that deliberate choice to gut the TC – without once bringing the issue before the City Council for discussion or review – with over a year left in her term as mayor of Alameda.

    Comment by Jon Spangler — July 29, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

  13. 9.: I knew it wouldn’t be long till JKW & JMS came to the rescue of the commission they sat on. 126 is twice as long as the hours staff gave any other single board/commish. And TC mtgs are often cancelled w/o public notice (like the last one). Good luck trying to find a recording or transcript of TC meeting minutes on the city hall website. BTW, JKW, I attended the CC mtg when that 126 number, in error, was presented. I don’t remember a correction. Do tell us what it should be.
    HAB & PB deserve all the hours they need. They’re the meat & potatoes of Alameda’s Bs&Cs. (in the interests of full disclosure, I did apply for the HAB & was put on the PB instead) But what does Alameda NEED a TC for?The next bridge? A new tunnel? That BART extension that should get here any day now? Hi-speed-rail? Maybe to resurrect that Gondolas-Over-The-Estuary plan of SunCal from 2002? Seriously, Palo Alto folded most of their TC into their PB, leaving only a “Bike & Trails Commission”. We should do the same. (And Spengler could chair it.)

    Comment by alameda vigilante — July 31, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

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