At the October 23 City Council meeting, a seismic shift in city governance occurred, though if you blinked, you may have missed it. Buried inside a list of seemingly mundane proposed changes to the city’s committees, boards and commissions (CBCs) was a clause to enable the removal of a CBC member “with or without cause… upon a majority vote of the City Council.” The previous policy required a 4/5 vote, a much more difficult threshold to meet.
The “Council majority,” referring to Mayor Vera and Councilmembers Eriksson and O’Brien, vocalized their support of the change and voted to adopt it, despite members of the public (and even Councilmember Eriksson himself) pointing out that it will have far-reaching consequences for city governance.
Planning Commissioner Nancy Barba, speaking as an individual, stated in her public comment, “There is a value in diversity of thought. And to think a simple majority could remove people because you don’t agree with their thoughts, you are going to lose out on diversity… and [lose out] on making this a city where everyone feels like they belong and their thoughts and ideas are valued.”
Stephen Jones, who also serves on the City’s Planning Commission, also commented as an individual: “I think it looks like you’re trying to do this without anyone noticing. It’s on the consent calendar. You kind of buried the change among a host of totally noncontroversial changes to the policy. What you are proposing is making these [positions] political when they haven’t been. It’s a huge change from the way things have been done. If it’s a wise course of action, you need to tell us why, and you haven’t done that.”
Councilmember Puza, who voted against the change, asked staff, “What would be the downside of keeping it as is?” City staff explained that the 4/5 threshold is a ‘high bar to meet.’ But why should the bar to remove someone from a city body be lowered? Staff explained that the change would make the removal threshold consistent with what is required for appointing a member of a CBC, which is indeed a simple majority. But should the removal of a member not be a rare occasion or at least be justified by more than political ideology? What does this mean for the future of our City’s CBCs?
Councilmember Eriksson spoke to the political impact of his decision, remarking: “Wouldn’t that be valuable to have all these commissions and boards to be somewhat aligned with the current council? Wouldn’t that make things flow better?” The comments seem to signal a desire to take advantage of this new policy to remove CBC members who may not align with his political
agenda and that of the current majority.
CBCs had little to no hard powers under the old policy, nor do they under this new policy. Council still retains the right to overturn any recommendation made by a City committee, board, or commission. The power of the CBCs was in their ability to inform and influence the direction of the Council and the community through thoughtful deliberation. So that begs the question: is this not just about removing the inconvenience of criticism or competing ideas from official city channels?
I happen to have some personal experience on this subject. As one public commenter pointed out during the meeting, I was the only incumbent not reappointed to my CBC position in July. For over two years, I served as Vice Chair of the City’s Advisory Committee on Housing and Homelessness. During my time on that body, I was not shy about sharing my learnings with this Council and yes, even some respectful criticism when I felt it was warranted– particularly when the majority moved to criminalize homelessness, a policy which I believe was not supported by evidence. Eriksson called my criticism of the ordinance “rather negative” just days before declining to reappoint me. Eriksson alluded to this moment in his remarks on Monday, clarifying that I was not removed but rather not reappointed, “because that would have required four votes with our current policy.” This sounded like an admission that yes, he would have preferred to remove me sooner had the rules allowed for it, hence his vote to change them.
The revised policy sets a dangerous precedent by allowing any Council present or future to craft their committees and commissions in their image, leading to accelerated turnover on CBCs and a massive loss of organizational knowledge that hampers their influence on the city’s direction. City residents may also be less willing to share their honest thoughts or even volunteer to serve on these bodies altogether, knowing they could be removed at any time for voicing an opinion contrary to the majority view.
Since this City Council was sworn in to office on December 12, 2022, the majority has voted to make sleeping on the street with anything more than a blanket and a pillow illegal, eliminate the protected bike lanes in downtown, remove two car-free streets on Melville and Main Street, and roll back a minimum wage increase for healthcare workers. Some CBC members expressed their concerns with these policies, and one can only hope the Council majority found value in those criticisms, even if they disagreed. Now, those same CBC members may think twice before speaking up at all.
Diversity of thought enhances the civic process and results in better policy… but only if we choose to value it.