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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Commentary: Does the use of subcommittees stifle public debate and input on important topics

Last week one of the centerpieces of the city council battle was the issue of the use of subcommittees and whether debate on key issues should take place in full public view or be largely hashed out behind close doors.

And while the council specifically argued about the issue of the city charter, this issue of the use of subcommittees largely transcends any single topic. It goes to the very heart of our democratic values.

While I strongly value the issue of transparency in government, I do think this is at best a very nuanced and complex issue. Both sides of the debate offer strengths and weaknesses in their argument.

Having watched a long and painful discussion a few weeks back where the council basically hashed out a development agreement in public, I would suggest that there are some things that should be done by staff and subcommittee in private because they deal with small and fine details rather than broader principles and issues. It was painful to watch the council try to grapple with specific details in public and inappropriate in my opinion. That would have been a perfect issue to hand back to staff and have staff work it out with council and then bring it back as a consent item to be voted up or down. So I do have some appreciation for the use of bodies that can hammer out details outside of the public realm.

On the other hand, I think the council minority of Mayor Sue Greenwald and Councilmember Lamar Heystek have important concerns about the use of subcommittee when it is used to bring forward full blown proposals that have the weight of staff recommendations behind them. In those cases, the issues are framed by those who hammered them out in private away from the public's eye. The public misses out on potentially important deliberation and alternative options. The process becomes largely fait accompli with the council majority then neatly and cleanly ratifying staff recommendation.

Now one way to avoid both of these pitfalls would be to have subcommittees instead of being charged with making specific recommendations, bring forward an array of options that the council would then have to deliberate upon. This way the fine details are worked out in private but the subcommittee is not coming forward with a final proposal that would strongly condition whatever action is taken by the council.

I have not figured out the statistics, but the vast majority of staff reports are approved with perhaps only small alterations. That gives an unelected staff tremendous ability to frame the debate and exert vast control over elected councilmembers. Similarly, a subcommittee that meets in private with staff would have tremendous ability to frame and direct a debate. There are occasions when subcommittee proposals have not been accepted--for instance--the subcommittee on commissions got almost all of their recommendations approved however, they did not get their proposed changes for the merger of the Senior Citizens Commission with the Social Services Commission.

The entire debate over the merger of those two commissions actually demonstrates the problem with the subcommittee system. The subcommittee came forward with a full blown resolution to merge the two commissions and they had done so on the consent agenda, meaning unless the item was pulled it would be approved with little discussion. The item was then pulled from consent, it was delayed a week, and only then did the commissions involved begin to realize what was going on and begin to take action. It was largely because the Senior Citizen Commission and its chair, Elaine Roberts Musser, began to raise a fuss and protest the merger that the merger was halted. And then it was primarily due to the strength or perceived strength of that community. In short, it took rather extraordinary conditions including a fair amount of fortune and luck for the subcommittees recommendation to be overruled.

The argument here is that a group of two are making decisions in private that will end up strongly directing whatever debate and public action takes place and the fear by the council minority is that by moving controversial issues from public to private deliberation, it makes it more difficult to raise controversial issues and more importantly strongly directs future council action. The force of subcommittee and staff recommendations provides political cover to what may be otherwise unpopular council actions.

The key debate facing council right now is whether there should be more or less public debate on items and where is the appropriate venue for these discussions. A subcommittee system could work under certain conditions.

First, the subcommittees should not come forward with specific recommendations. That was in my opinion, the biggest problem with the school district's task force on best uses of schools--they their recommendations, tailored their arguments and report toward those recommendations, and did not provide the elected officials with an array of options. They were thus forced to either overrule a volunteer committee who had spent considerable time working on it or accepting their findings. Statements made by the school board indicated that in fact, that line of thinking did factor into the process and a bare majority of 3-2 voted to ratify the recommendations of the task force.

Thus, subcommittees should be charged with studying issues and presenting a broad array of possible actions rather than focus on a single action. This would achieve the strength of subcommittees--hashing out fine details--while mitigating its weakness, structuring debate toward a single recommendation.

Second, all subcommittee reports should be agendized as full debate and discussion items. They should never be placed on the consent calendar for a non-debated up or down vote.

Third, all subcommittee deliberations should be made public record that can be scrutinized by the public and fellow council members. It would be even better if they could be videotaped and broadcast on the government channel.

Fourth, issues that are likely to be large and contentious should be heard by the full council first to allow for full council direction about philosophy. The subcommittee would then meet to study the issue and hash out the details. The issue could then come back to the full council for more debate and discussion. This would again achieve the best of both worlds.

Overall I do not oppose the use of subcommittees, but I do oppose their current usage and I fully understand the concerns of the minority that the majority can use these as a technique to neatly hash out controversial topics outside of the view of the public and then present them with a quick and neat argument.

It is important to note as we have in the past, that one of the big problems that the council as a whole faces and the council minority in particular faces is that none of them have individual staff working for them. That means issues that are complex and need the expertise of staff put the members of the minority at a huge disadvantage because staff often does not fully present both sides of the issue.

We saw this perhaps most prominently with the water issue, where most of the council members were completely at the mercy of trained experts. Members of the council minority did not have the luxury of allowing their own staffers or independent analysts to provide alternative findings. That strongly disadvantaged any dissenters because they could not bring forward an alternative perspective outside of those who were presenting their own preferred alternatives. This is the same problem that council members face with any topic whether it is the presentation by staff or a subcommittee. And it represents a major disadvantage for any group in any sort of permanent minority on an array of issues.

Now a good and strong staff would present both their recommendations and counter-recommendations, this staff does not seem to do that well. I will never forget the exchange when Councilmember Heystek asked a staffer to explain the weakness of their approach and they could not do so.

In the end, I understand at the times the need and desire for using subcommittees as a means to facilitate and expedite complex topics that require study and development outside of the normal council process. As I stated earlier, there are some activities that just should not take place in full public view at an open meeting. However, I think that the use of subcommittees also takes away from the deliberative and democratic process. So if the council is to continue to use subcommittees, they should restructure their purpose so as to not take away from this process.

In the end however, the minority is really at the mercy of the majority and their own defense is to raise issues in public and allow the public to know what is going on with their government. I favor any arrangements that will facilitate greater transparency in government actions.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting