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Will Nixing Terms Fix Hyattsville Committees?

Hyattsville's appointed committees are a mess of expired terms and vacancies. What if there were no terms?

If city leaders are having a hard time keeping track of appointments to Hyattsville's advisory boards, commissions and committees, why not do away with terms of office?

That's the idea of Stuart Eisenberg, who last night encouraged the Hyattsville City Council to think of creative solutions to the city's currently disorganized appointed advisory bodies.

As a result of sloppy record keeping, all but one of the city's appointed bodies are hamstrung by vacancies and ilegitimacy issues. Many lack codified mission statements. A number of them are not in full compliance with open meeting laws.

Eisenberg, director of the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation and a member of the apparently illegitimate (or at least poorly documented) city Shade Tree Board, pressed the city to act fast to sort out the committee mess. 

"The shade tree board is a working board, and there is a lot of work left to do," said Eisenberg. "Appoint people until otherwise removed, so we don't get left in the lurch."

"Is your suggestion that committee and shade tree board members have life sentences?" inquired a joking Mayor Marc Tartaro during Eisenberg's speech at the public comment portion of last night's city council meeting. 

"No, please, just a different model," responded Eisenberg. 

While rare in American politics, the idea of a political position without a term of office is common in parliamentary democracies, where a prime minister serves indefinitely until subject to a successful vote of no confidence which then triggers an election. 

Later in the meeting, city council members agreed on a rough plan to fill vacancies sort out legal frameworks for committees one at a time, starting with the Hyattsville Environmental Committee.

stuart eisenberg October 09, 2012 at 02:18 PM
Michael something about the tone of this article smacks of "Agenda," not reporting. I was not suggesting doing away with terms of service before Council. Many employment contracts have a term of service, but automatically roll over for another year if both parties take no action to alter their relationship. That is the kind of legislative mechanism I am suggesting Council consider. Your word choice is incindiary: none of the Commitees and Boards I serve on are "hamstrung." The Planning Committee and Shade Tree Board function at high capacity, but when the workload is high it can burn us out if we don't have enough shoulders to share the load. The bulk of City Commitees are advisory in nature, not ministerial. That advice they provide can be delivered whether a term of service of a member has lapsed or not. Council has the authority to appoint members with retroactive terms of service, and has done so many times before, when the clerical bookkeeping has periodically not kept up with the primary workload. Throughout municipal Maryland this is a periodic and common phenomenon. continued in next comment . . .
stuart eisenberg October 09, 2012 at 02:21 PM
You seem to be making a mountain out of a molehill. For those of us who provide volunteer services to the community through the vehicle of City committees, it is the work, not the niceties of appointment that matter. Your editorial tone characterized my comments in a context of your imposed view, not objectively, as a reporter. I was not addressing "disorganization" as you characterized, but process and practical solutions to policy that doesn't always address the contingencies faced by an elected body. I was asking Council to consider adopting a policy mechanism that could formally address unintentional term of service sunsets for the City's working Boards. Where the working Boards are concerned (Shade Tree, Board of Supervisors of Elections) where their actions lead to ministerial conclusions, that is important.
Michael Theis October 09, 2012 at 04:00 PM
You weren't suggesting doing away with terms of service. Rather you were suggesting that terms roll over year-over-year if no action is taken to alter the relationship. And your comments to council regarding a potential future solution to a situation where all but one of the city's appointed bodies are either illegitimate, not following open meetings act, lack a defined mission statement or struggle to meet quorum as a result of vacancies was not addressing disorganization, but was rather an attempt to find "solutions" to policies which don't "always address the contingencies faced by an elected body." I'm sorry, but that is spin. The city's boards, committees and commissions are quite literally disorganized. They are expected to be organized and operated in a certain way and they are not. You tell me that the appointed bodies are not hamstrung, but then also told that "when the workload is high it can burn us out if we don't enough shoulders to share the load." The shade tree board, which helps approve permits for tree planting and removal in the city, is supposed to have nine members. City officials can only find three members, one of whom has no record of being appointed by council. That's not hamstrung? Does the city Shade Tree Board have enough shoulders to efficiently share the load right now?
Jim Groves October 09, 2012 at 05:35 PM
The City and the Council Members do not do a good job promoting these committees. The Council members need to understand that the committees are there to lessen the burden of the City, as well as the Council, so they should be out there talking to their constituents and drumming up business. It's crazy that, for example, the Environment Committee has 4 or 5 people that show up and almost all of us are from Ward 2. Are there no environmentalist in the other wards? The City needs to maybe start from a clean slate. List all committees and get a list everyone who is known to have been appointed. Add to that list anyone who has been coming to the meetings and wishes to serve. Immediately put them on a one year term. Each committee should, if nothing else, provide a list of who attended the meetings throughout the year. Each November (or whatever month), those who have been attending and are on the committee are renewed until the next year. If someone comes on the committee in June, that's ok, they are automatically renewed (if they choose) in November. That way the renewal is always the same month and you don't have to keep track of who joined when.
Mark Ferguson October 09, 2012 at 08:53 PM
I find this whole issue and the resulting discussion a little humorous, given my experience that it has always been thus. The current proliferation of boards/committees started perhaps twenty years ago, and since that time the Council has struggled to find sufficient numbers of members (let alone retain their participation after their appointment), and has not generally provided staff support for preparation of minutes required by law for all City-appointed boards and committees since the 1991 Open Meetings Act changes. This is not a criticism of Council; the fact is that strict compliance - particularly the responsibility to record and publish minutes - is a fairly significant amount of work to expect from a volunteer group, and the record of the City's committees has only ever been at best, spotty. Making staff commitments to support the committees involves evening commitments and overtime. And yes, Jim, some wards are always over-represented, and other wards have always struggled to provide volunteers. Stuart's roll-over suggestions make a lot of sense, but would address only one of the long-standing problems. If there is a sincere desire to fix more of the problems, it means: (1) reducing the size of most of the boards and committees to the size where a quorum can reliably be expected; (2) removing ward representation requirements where possible; and (3) providing dedicated staff support for publishing schedules, agendas and keeping minutes.
stuart eisenberg October 10, 2012 at 06:39 AM
Michael, I truly do appreciate your calling attention to the need for better oversight and management of the Committees, even if I find your treatment of the subject hyperolic and overwrought. I get it. Patch sells advertisements and needs traffic on the site. I do take note that the period when the three senior members of the Shade Tree Board's terms sunsetted in early April of 2012, coincides with the departure of City Clerk Douglass Barber, whose duties included tracking Committee terms. So for me the issue comes back to the extended hiring gaps in key staff positions. Serving on both a City Board and a City Committee, I take issue with your characterization of the Committees themselves being disorganized. Certainly not when it comes to our work product. On the Shade Tree Board we are certainly not hamstrung, we function at a high level despite the large demand for tree removal permit review. Is it onerous not being sufficiently staffed with volunteers? Yes, but preserving the City's tree canopy, and volunteering for the community is worth the effort. The bigger issue here is not committee disarray, it is the appropriate allocation of resources and recruitment of Hyattsville-based volunteers, and the paucity of willing people to take on undervalued, and sometimes burdensome service. When is Patch going to start highlighting the terrific volunteers who show up, take on the issues of their community, whether their appointments are up to date or not?
Michael Theis October 10, 2012 at 07:15 AM
Probably after I go to bed. You should, too.
Scurvy November 05, 2012 at 08:49 PM
It is like Hyattsville to talk an issue to death and not make any progress to remedying the situation. Unless it is a Councilperson/Mayor pet project.

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