Montpelier: Institutional memory vs. new blood
By Amy Ash Nixon
Staff Writer | August 04,2014
MONTPELIER — What defines the best public service these days?
At its special meeting Wednesday, the City Council debated the merits of having long-serving members on city boards and commissions — the Design Review Committee, Development Review Board and Planning Commission — discussing the need to balance institutional experience and historical knowledge with the wish for new ideas and fresh blood.
The boards in question all have some regulatory authority.
The discussion came up at this week’s meeting, because at the council’s next regular meeting, Aug. 13, the elected officials will be faced with making the next round of appointments; a number of openings must be filled later this month, as well as another round in September.
There are four seats on the Planning Commission, two seats on the Development Review Board, and three seats on the Design Review Committee.
“There has been a question raised as to how to evaluate new people versus people who have been on these boards for a very long time ... 20 years in some cases,” Mayor John Hollar said.
The mayor said the issue of having new people come into the process and bring their ideas and skills has come up, as well as how those people can compete with those seeking reappointment and long tenures in some cases.
Having some fresh thinking and encouraging new people to seek appointments was discussed, as was whether the council should “reappoint people when there is not cause for removing them” — a difficult balance and question when the appointment process arises.
The council recently reappointed two long-serving Development Review Board members — Kevin O’Connell and John Lindley III — to terms through July 23, 2017. Several other people had applied, but a few of them withdrew and decided to seek appointment to the Planning Commission instead; another applicant addressed the council and was encouraged to seek the alternate appointment to be made at the next council meeting.
“I think you want to strike a balance between maintaining historical continuity” and encouraging newcomers, said Councilor Thierry Guerlain. “I think we also really want to be bringing on fresh blood, new thinking, so we don’t reach this state where everything is just the same forever.”
Hollar added, “There are some really qualified people who want to get engaged” in the city’s processes on the boards, but they may get discouraged “if we’re going to bar the doors and say the people who are here are the people who are going to be here.” He urged the council to examine that process in order to attract interest going forward.
Councilor Tom Golonka said, “I think there should be some type of discussion on term limits, and I don’t know how we structure that within two weeks” before the Aug. 13 meeting.
“There is value for having the institutional knowledge on some of these boards,” said Golonka. He said he feels new residents, or people who have not had the opportunity to serve, should be encouraged, too. He said he hopes they will apply for openings.
“If no one is really applying, I think that’s a problem. ... If we’re not able to offer new residents (the chance to) volunteer and serve on some of these committees, I think we’re doing a disservice to the town.”
Golonka said that at some point, longer-serving members would be “termed out” from office, to make room for new people to apply.
To that, Hollar said, “I would rather have it be more flexible, tell our volunteer board members that we’re going to consider that factor.” He said the council will also be looking “for other potential applicants,” moving forward.
Councilor Anne Watson suggested incumbent and newcomer board members be given level playing fields.
“Attendance has been an issue on some of these committees,” Watson said. “And I think that ought to be a factor, as well.” She didn’t think the council could come up with a policy before the Aug. 13 meeting, but suggested that evaluating “everybody on sort of an even playing field and history is not going to be a reason we’re going to reappoint you, and not even make any more detailed statement than that. I don’t know if it’s too nerve-wracking to sort of just put everyone on notice, but I think that’s where we’re coming from.”
Council member Dona Bate said she would like to hear from the boards involved about how things are working now and how each of the boards is functioning.
City Manager William Fraser said historically the council has moved alternates who have experience in a board’s functioning into full slots when seats become open, and if the alternate is willing.
“In the end, these are the key appointments the elected officials have to keep the government moving in the way they want it to,” he said of the council’s authority over the boards whose members it appoints.
Hollar said, “I’m always impressed with the quality of the candidates that we do get. None of this discussion is intended to diminish the quality of the service we get, but I do think that there is a value in turnover.” He said he liked the idea of considering “everybody on their merits equally.”
“We want to put the best people on the boards at any given time and reserve the right to make that determination based on the slate of applicants,” said Fraser.
For the August appointments, the deadline for applications to City Hall will be Aug. 8.