City councils and city commissions often create citizen advisory boards to advise them on subjects that require special expertise, as well as to provide eager residents an opportunity to be more involved in their local government. But Clearwater officials appear to have insufficiently utilized their advisory boards, and the result is that those boards will play a lesser role in the future.
Two primary problems have arisen, according to a discussion at the City Council's Jan. 12 meeting.
First, a smaller city staff makes it difficult to provide an employee to take the minutes at all advisory board meetings. Second, some of the advisory boards are doing little more at their meetings than listening to reports by the city departments responsible for working with them. That takes up staff time and also results in few recommendations being forwarded to the City Council.
Council members decided that for those reasons, they want to reduce meetings of advisory boards to once per quarter rather than monthly, and stagger the meeting dates.
Some of Clearwater's advisory boards are more than advisory, making decisions about construction projects or enforcing city codes, for example. But others are more purely advisory, including the Marine Advisory Board, Environmental Advisory Board, Parks and Recreation Board, the Airpark Advisory Board and the Sister Cities Advisory Board.
"The utility of these boards just isn't what I would like it to be, considering the resources they require," council member Paul Gibson said. "The right answer would be to have more involved people who have a passion for whatever board they are on. We do have some people like that, but I don't think we have enough of them."
There were hints at the meeting that council members are unhappy with advisory boards for a couple of other reasons. One advisory board was asked by the council to take on a special project, but the board declined. Some boards have launched their own projects — work that City Council members may not want them to do or that may require staff help.
These problems point to a failure of the City Council to provide sufficient direction to its advisory boards over time.
Presumably, the boards were created because elected officials needed expertise and advice from individuals with special skills and interests. Presumably, the council appointed people with those skills to fill the seats on the boards. Then, the communication between the boards and the City Council should have been two-way and ongoing, with assignments doled out by the council and recommendations and suggestions forwarded by the boards.
Board members not interested in performing that role should have resigned or been replaced.
But it also is tough to be an advisory board if no one seems interested in your advice. No wonder board meetings were often canceled, or some boards gave themselves projects to do.
Some cities — Dunedin is a prime example — utilize a greater number of advisory boards and keep members usefully involved in the work of the city. Properly managed, advisory boards are a ready source of citizen opinions for elected officials. And their members, educated by their stints on the boards, make informed candidates for public office.
It is unfortunate that Clearwater finds them less useful now, when local governments face so many challenges and citizen interest in government, from Washington to city hall, is so great.