One of Mayor Trish Spencer’s big things is attending other city of Alameda meeting, like the Planning Board or the Rec and Park Commission meetings. Often some of the board and commission members seem to really like her presence as well, probably because some of those meetings hardly have an audience. This attendance seems to be viewed as some sort of positive to her mayorship. However according to those that follow good governance for cities, this may not be best practice.
As innocent as a council member’s motives may be, when he or she personally attends a planning commission meeting or another subordinate committee meeting, he or she may be crossing an ethical boundary. Council members do not violate any laws by attending commission meetings. However, they run the risk of:
- Potentially revealing a biased view, thereby causing their own disqualification should the matter at hand subsequently come before the council;
- Interfering with the role of the commission as an independent advisory body; and
- Not acting in accordance with the views of the city council as a whole.
Beyond the issue of perceived bias, participating in a commission meeting raises other ethical questions. For instance, council members generally have the authority to remove a commission member. With this power, a council member’s mere attendance at a meeting can be highly influential, especially when he or she makes his or her opinions known. Merely indicating that one is not speaking for the entire council, but rather providing one’s own opinion, does not address the significant impact of the “boss” offering an opinion. This influence may also jeopardize a significant role of the commission, which is to provide independent recommendations or decisions to the city council. After all, none of the cities’ commissions are required to exist; if the city council wants to have the role of decision-maker, it could take that role. But when a city establishes a commission, the city council has also by implication indicated its desire to have an independent body make decisions or recommendations. The presence of the appointing authority at the commission meetings affects that independence.
I’ll note that the analysis also indicates that simply caveating that you are speaking as an individual won’t necessarily dampen the impact of the person who would be in charge of re-appointing you is expressing a very specific opinion.
And simply because an elected official does not attend a meeting in person does not mean that they don’t have opportunities to listen to the discussion and understand the deliberation process of that body.
This does not deprive council members of the ability to learn what occurs at a commission meeting. A city council member may listen to most meetings online, on television or by using the city clerk’s taped recordings. Information can also be obtained by reading the commission’s meeting minutes. A council member’s personal presence at or participation in a commission meeting, on the other hand, could reveal a biased view, disrupt the independence of the commission or exert undue influence on the commission, regardless of the council member’s intent. It is best avoided.