The Albany City Council continues to work through the issue of who should be appointed to city advisory commissions, but our sense still is that councilors are overthinking this matter.
The issue, which has been bubbling along now for a few months, came up again in a council work session this week. Councilors at the session were grappling with three questions on the issue, and quickly came to a consensus on one of them, choosing to boost the size of advisory panels with five members to seven. That's fine, assuming that adequate numbers of volunteers can be found to fill the additional positions.
But the council bogged down on a couple of other questions:
• Should city residency be a requirement of serving on these commissions?
• Should city councilors be required to appoint individuals who live in the councilors' wards?
To some extent, these questions reflect a broader issue: How to best ensure a diversity of opinions on these boards, which advise the council but have no actual decision-making power.
One councilor boiled the issue down to this question: Are advisory boards and committees special interest groups pushing their own agendas or do they serve the city of Albany?
The problem with that question is that it represents a false choice: Responsible members of these commissions certainly are capable of doing both.
Let's take the city's parks commission, for example, since it seems to be a flashpoint for the current discussion. One councilor wondered if it's best to appoint people who are passionate about parks or, for the sake of diversity, appoint people who think Albany has too many parks and needs to sell some of them. Well, first, it's hard to imagine why you would appoint people who are, say, neutral about the idea of parks to that commission — or, for that matter, why someone who had no strong opinions about parks would be interested in applying to that commission in the first place.
Nevertheless, intelligent people with an interest in parks still likely are quite capable of keeping a number of different thoughts in mind as they go about their work on the commission. For example, a responsible parks commissioner might like the idea of expanding the city park system, but still decide to hold off on that to be sure that the city has the necessary resources to properly manage its current holdings. Maybe that would involve selling some underutilized park property (although we suspect that at least some community members might have strong opinions about that).
As for the issue about citywide geographic diversity on these commissions, that's one that the councilors themselves can deal with. Part of the work councilors do should involve identifying and grooming residents in their wards who might have an interest in serving on these commissions. In cases where councilors have done due diligence but have been unable to identify suitable candidates, they should be allowed to look outside their wards — but our thinking is that those cases should be few and far between for councilors who have made a point of staying in touch with their wards.
The council needs to keep at least one other thing in mind as it works through these questions: The people who are serving on these commissions are volunteers who are, in some cases, just getting their feet wet in terms of civic service. These commissions are training grounds of sorts for the next generation of elected leaders for the city. It's possible that the end result of this effort by the council could be to turn the appointments process or service on these committees into a bitterly contested and divisive experience for applicants. It's hard to see who would benefit from that — although you could argue that, these days, it could be good training for serving on the Albany City Council. (mm)