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Op-Ed: The Highly Successful Environmental Task Force

Is the 'green group' circumventing the commission system?

The City Council is currently recruiting new members for its Environmental Task Force—or, as often referred to by City Hall, the Highly Successful Environmental Task Force (as supported by the search words "highly successful" on the city's website or the recent Beach Reporter ad).

I generally have no quibble with the work produced by this group, and I hope I am aligned with the rest of the city in saying "good job and thanks" to those dedicated citizens who served 18 months with the task force. That said, I am nonetheless concerned that the "highly successful" characterization by City Hall is meant to manage public opinion in respect to the processes of the group.

I reference specifically the section of the May 4, 2010 staff report (page 6), where the report concludes that:

Based on discussion with the Task Force members and staff this next phase of environmental outreach should again be delivered through a Task Force structure for the following reasons:

  • The ETF proved to be a high-functioning model.
  • Task Force members and City Staff share in the work of research and policy development (whereas City Staff perform work for Commissions).
  • Task Force lifespan is tailored toward specific objectives, and does not outlive the assignment.
  • No long-term commitment of resources.
  • Task Force membership is larger and broader than a Commission, capturing more divergent stakeholders.

To me, this reads as: "We can move more quickly and efficiently if we are not constrained by the open meeting provisions that apply to a regular city commission, and that is why we are Highly Successful."

Frankly, there is no other reason this section is in the staff report.

I am not certain if the above is a promotion of the task force or an indication of how our City Council has enfeebled our commission system.

The ETF primarily operates in private subcommittee or small working groups, at meetings not open to the public. The full-group sessions of the task force are open to the public, but those meetings operate with a very accelerated agenda, with many items scheduled for only 10 minutes of discussion among a 10-member group. Public commentary is limited to only two minutes per person "throughout the meeting."

Furthermore, because of vague agenda item wording, a casual reader cannot determine the substantive issues to be discussed prior to each meeting, and there are no staff reports available to provide any advance context. No meeting minutes are published, if any minutes are even taken.

To my knowledge, no financial disclosure is required of the task force members, unlike that required for commissioners.

In summary, this model does not meet basic open meeting aspirations.

As to the above points supporting continuation of the task force structure outside the commission structure, I raise the following:

  • The "highly functioning" conclusion is undefined as to what that means. Commissions in this town do not share in the work of research and policy development with staff only because the City Council has specifically told the commissioners not to, and the council pretty much lands hard on any commission or commissioner that strays from this objective.
  • This commission model is much more constrictive than many other towns, and this difference is often not understood by residents who have lived somewhere else.
  • The lifespan of the ETF, which at inception seemed short-term and appropriate for a task force (when it was only supposed to exist for 12 months), now seems interminable and far beyond the normal lifespan of an ad hoc "task force."
  • The existence of the environmental programs manager, a permanent employee that apparently has this task force management as a prime duty, sort of belies the point that there is no long-term resource commitment.
  • The task force membership is hardly larger and broader than, for instance, the Parks & Recreation Commission, a seven-member commission with representatives from MBUSD, Mira Costa, and Older Adults. More telling, though, is that the city's own "Going Green" webpage notes that the cities of Santa Monica and Seattle have effective environmental commissions both larger and more diverse than our ETF.

Logic would dictate that a commission with its inherent accountability and transparency structures should be the default form unless the council could show a compelling reason why the commission structure would not suffice. The city's own "Green Report" specifically referred to the appointed group as an "Environmental Commission."

Any group can be highly successful when defined to one's own parameters. And certainly a good work product is expected from any group provided a dedicated staff resource at the manager level; limited public input; 18 months for delivery; informational resources aplenty and the complete attention of two councilmembers.

But for a group whose apparent next phase is dedicated to "helping the city reach out to the community," perhaps it would be best for the council to first show residents that they care to reach out toward the residents with an open process.

Gary Osterhout is an 18-year Manhattan Beach resident. He has served as a member of the Parking and Public Improvement Commission and the Parks & Recreation Commission, among other local committees and boards. To view his profile, click here.

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