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Our View: Examine process, rules before dissolving city boards

Durango City Council gave city staff members the green light to move forward with a reorganization plan that whittles 23 boards and commissions to 15. Working from Council’s directive in 2019, city staff members delivered on rooting out redundancies, inefficiencies, overlap and more. They produced an optimal restructure. What to combine, dissolve, change in new ways.

Council is happy. The city probably is, too. But volunteer board members aren’t. Residents are asking, what happened?

We can’t be sure that fewer people – 123 board and commission members scaled down to 78 – would result in better municipal government.

It’s tricky with guiding bodies advocating and advising Council, and ultimately influencing policies. And Council’s highest goal will always be to serve and benefit the public.

Council missed a step. It asked for broad strokes, large moves in the reorganization. First, we would have preferred a zoomed-in lens to the origins of the perceived bloat and duplicated work, and examined rules of governance for each person and position involved.

We don’t need a crystal ball or Google search or maybe even an overhaul of boards and commissions. Answers can be found in the most basic – and maybe boring – places. Enacting resolutions, the City Charter, the Code of Ordinances, onboarding materials and more. Without exacting expectations and guardrails, we tend to move out of our lanes, creating some havoc.

Lean into that structure of rules. Clarify beliefs and intentions. Be straight on what each person is supposed to do. That focus on actual process should come before boards and commissions are combined or disbanded.

Numbers get our attention. It’s a good sell to say the reorganization would reduce 429 Council hours and 5,500 staff hours to 83 Council hours and 1,500 staff hours per year. This translates to a reduction of staff dollars spent on boards and commissions by 27% from $313,000 to $85,000. Looks good on paper. Yet, it’s impossible to assign a monetary value to vibrant citizen participation, collective wisdom and institutional knowledge.

Boards have their own spelled-out measurements of accountability. If they’re not functioning well, look at the reasons and redirect them to guidelines. Consider a different equation: How much would be saved if boards operated in ways intended? Start here.

This goes for Council, too. Councilors as liaisons is murky territory. One point to lift up from the city’s report on Councilors and board meetings: “Attendance is optional, passive in nature.” We’d take it further. Excluding meetings that require a Council member there, we urge no Councilors at board meetings. The direction of advocacy is a one-way street – boards to Council. That’s it. When Councilors make known preferred outcomes, dynamics change. Volunteers’ authority erodes.

It’s inevitable – a hierarchy of power exists within the system. Council needs to be crystal clear on its own rules of engagement.

In the reorganization, we need more explanation about how community engagement would be improved. Apparently, the public is encouraged to go directly to Council. As we discuss hours and time spent, we’re not sure leapfrogging advisory boards is better.

Wasteful time and spending can always be cut. But, again, it’s all in the process, in the details. How it’s done. It must support that three-legged stool of the Council, the guiding bodies and city staff members. Return to how everything fits together.

Go back to November 2022, when all but one Community Relations Commission member left after disagreements with Council. As spectators, we had questions about whose role was what, leading up to the “Happy Columbus Day” post on the city’s Facebook page in October. Without defined roles, resolving conflicts is impossible.

We expect accountability. But let’s first go down to the studs, check that foundation before rebuilding everything.