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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Just What is "The People's Bussiness"?

I just caught up on a few days of Bernie O’Hare’s Lehigh Valley Ramblings blog, and what I read gave me the motivation to type this post.

Bernie’s post titled Norco Council Does Its Best to Discourage Citizen Volunteers was all about an issue we are in the midst of here at the city level. Apparently, there was some debate surrounding the approval of people for County authorities, boards, and commissions (ABCs). According to Bernie’s report, two Councilpersons (Charles Dertinger and Diane Neiper) expressed concerns over having to confirm candidates in the manner that they were asked. At the County Council, members are given resumes and the candidates seeking approval are present on induction night.

NOTE: Bernie also mentioned the Council's poor treatment of the appointees. He pointed out that the appointees remained standing as the Council members debated their issues with no apparent regard to the appointees presence or condition. I agree whole-heartedly with Bernie's assessment that poor treatment like that is very discouraging to anyone seeking to voluteer their civic services. (added 02/26/08)



Interestingly, Bernie and I (both huge proponents of open government) do not seem to agree on the level of vetting necessary for (re)appointments to ABCs. O’Hare takes the stand that, “It’s hard enough to get volunteers” and that the posts are “thankless”. Those reasons just happen to be the exact rebuttals we (Bad Apple and me) get any time we advocate for in-person interviews and confirmations of ABC candidates. Last week Councilwoman Elinor Warner was quoted in the Express-Times saying that she does not want to see the process become a “Supreme Court confirmation”.

I disagree with all of those statements. Saying that it is difficult to find candidates for ABCs should not be allowed to end the argument. That rhetoric should not reduce us to the lowest common denominator—accepting whatever names are presented by the administration. First, the solution does not accurately address the problem; it by-passes the problem. A true solution would be geared towards increasing the willingness to participate and increasing the candidate pool. It stands to reason that if we are not getting competition for positions, then we may not be getting the best potential. We need to explore some different approaches to fix this inequity. It is our position that the number one reason for the City’s low level of interest is communication. The methods used to recruit people for ABC positions are underwhelming and lack imagination. We DO NOT and HAVE NOT issued press releases; We DO NOT and HAVE NOT posted vacancies on the web; We DO NOT and HAVE NOT listed vacancies in the Bugler; and most importantly we DO NOT and HAVE NOT publicized what our ABCs do or need.

Labeling civic service (not to be confused with hired civil service) as “thankless” is, in itself, discouraging; and communicates a message that is in direct opposition with the promotion of ABC service.

At best, the reasons are crutches. At the very worst, the reasons serve as gatekeepers; the basis to maintain certain levels of status quo. We have seen over and over again the damage that a King’s reign over appointments can result in. Last year former Senator John Edwards said he wanted to propose what he called "Brownie's Law" requiring that “qualified people, not political hacks, lead key federal agencies” (http://www.reuters.com/article/politicsNews/idUSN2721144820070828). We can look a lot closer than New Orleans for examples of appointment discretion gone astray due to the lack of controls that protect the people (“the people being the citizenry not the appointees). Recently we’ve been in the midst of issues with the Easton Housing Authority (junket abuse, HOPE VI housing ratios, and attendance) and the Easton Parking Authority (Riverwalk debt) that center on the qualifications, conduct, and judgment of members. The Mayor himself sites the Zoning Board’s tendency to make decisions that are not in-line with the City’s strategic plans when he discusses the need for ABC improvements.

In October 2007, Mayoral Candidate Panto was asked, “how can we better ensure that the nominated appointees [to ABCs] are qualified and representative of the needs of taxpaying residents?” He answered, “…we will advertise openings by all means possible to recruit as many applicants as possible. We will interview each candidate to review their commitment to the position and the skill set they bring to the appointment. When a decision is made the individual’s name will be submitted to City Council for their approval.”

Then Council Candidate El Warner’s answer to the very same question sums up our viewpoint well. She answered, “…council needs to ensure that openings on the ABCs are somehow advertised – on the city website, in the Bugler, etc. – so that all interested residents have a chance to come forward. Rather than just passing a name onto council for approval, the mayor should be asked to also pass along a list of qualifications, and a letter of interest from the candidate. If necessary, council should also meet with the candidate for a discussion. Strengthening this process should not “scare” away interested citizens, but instead help strengthen the membership of these ABCs.”

And as a Council Candidate Roger Ruggles also states in his response that, “council needs to interview each candidate and identify their expectation of the individual being nominated for that position.” (http://eastonundressed.blogspot.com/2007/10/candidate-question-8-authorities-boards.html)

The first part of that question addresses the importance of the twenty plus ABCs, and it points out the fact that they are “sanctioned city government subdivisions”. The million dollar Parking Authority tab, the two HOPE VI denials (with board conduct sited in the denial correspondence), and the large number of converted single-family homes are definitive proof of how important ABC positions are. We can ill afford to further offend every other Eastonian by trying to avoid offending a person asking to be responsible for our City’s well being. We have the right assess anyone who believes that they are deserving of such public trust.

How can we be assured that every citizen is given proper consideration if we are only presented with the successful applicants? There needs to be a method in place that shows the public exactly how many interested parties apply and proves that each applicant is given the same due diligence. The process of voting for the names presented at Council actually brings appointees closer to being like members of the Supreme Court, because the practice makes it easy for people to be reapproved (with the tiniest of scrutiny) for life.

Some people have expressed concerns over how “open” municipal government should truly be. There are concerns that “opening” means taking control away from the elected officials. It doesn’t. Informing the people and allowing the people comment does not take away the electorate’s responsibility to decide. The politicians will still have to decide; responsibly or otherwise.

Thanks for the text box Bernie!!!

5 comments:

Bernie O'Hare said...

Glad to see your well-written post. Had you attended that dreadful council meeting last Thursday, I'm sure you'd agree with me.

Let me point out a few things. First, every council member had a resume well in advance of confirmation, and was free to make his or her own inquiries. Second, nearly every appointee attended the confirmation, decked out.

Each was asked to rise.

While standing like schoolchildren, Dertinger launched into a lengthy tirade against the county exec for failing to have an updated list. Had Dertinger attended the personnel committee hearing the previous day, he'd know that problem had been solved. But he wanted to lash out at the exec and table everything. In the meantime, these people were standing at attention.

It was a disgraceful lack of respect, something we all deserve.
I have no problem with questioning someone's true motivations, and we all know some people have hidden agendas. But what Dertinger did was a disgrace to himself, the county and many good people.

Take care, my friend.

Elucidator said...

HoC, I stand by the comments I made while a candidate. Not all of my response to the ABC process introduced by the mayor made it into the paper. I said that I thought Council should receive a copy of a resume and a letter of interest from the candidate and not just a name, and I said that the positions need to be advertised. I said that I thought Council should receive the list of all who sought appointment. I said that Council should have the opportunity to interview nominees, if necessary. Yes, I said that I didn't want the process to resemble a Supreme Court vetting process, but I did not back away from wanting to process to be more open, more inclusive, and to include more thought and scrutiny. The entirety of my comments just didn't make the article.

House of Crayons said...

Bernie and El,

Thanks for the replies.

Bernie, I am 100% in agreement with you on the issue of the people's poor treatment. That really is a detrement to civic service. I will add that to the post. Thatnks.

I was focused on the debate we are engaged in here in Easton over whether or not candidates should be interviewed publically.

El, thank you for elaborating. My intent was to only address the quoted statement, not to offer allusions on your thinking. I used your interview along with Roger's to support my reasoning in this debate.

Thank you both.
Your Neighbor

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