Is political patronage motivating Mayor Bridget Newton to exploit a loophole in the law to keep friends on influential city boards and commissions, or is it merely bungling? Right now more than half of the Planning Commission is serving on expired terms and one commissioner’s term expired more than a year ago—and it’s hard to figure out the reason.
The city code (Chapter 1, Article III) states that “Boards and commissions shall consist of members that may include alternate members, appointed by the Mayor subject to confirmation by the Council” and that “Each member shall serve for the term set by law or resolution or until a successor takes office.” But what happens when the Mayor is unwilling or unable to appoint a successor? It’s created an unfortunate loophole for good government. If these members vacated their seats when their terms expired, the Planning Commission would now be unable to conduct business. Instead, they’ve continued to serve for months, but in the process have secured a silent appointment to a board without the approval of Mayor and Council.
The Mayor and Council is well aware of vacancies years before they expire, so this clogged situation could only be a result of:
- Leveraging political power. The Mayor’s power to nominate people to boards and commissions allows him or her to shape the direction and decisions of the City for years (Planning Commissioners serve a five-year term, for example). Indeed, that may have been Mayor Newton’s motivation to reappoint Don Hadley to the Planning Commission, who was one of her most vocal and active supporters during the 2015 election. She was unable to secure his confirmation from the Council in February 2016 and Newton has been unwilling to appoint new commissioners to the Planning Commission ever since. This clearly corrupts the idea of term limits for unelected positions and thwarts the regular and routine transition of power among residents who are qualified and willing to serve on the city’s boards and commissions. By failing to nominate new members, Mayor Newton is also opening her up to accusations that she is holding the community hostage by keeping her supporters in place without a vote and preventing the rest of City Council from playing a role in the formation of city boards and commissions.
- Overwhelmed by the job. With more than two dozen boards and commissions, reviewing applications, conducting interviews, and making those appointments can be a fulltime job. In September 2015, the Mayor nominated 23 people and in February 2016 it was 14 people. Perhaps it’s time to revise the nomination process or reduce the number of boards (does Rockville really need 27 boards to be effective and ensure community participation?).
- Incompetent governance. No one is watching the clock and the meters on board members continue to expire. New appointments aren’t staggered so several members’ terms expire at the same time leaving a bigger hole to fill in the future. This seems like a problem that could be fixed by a calendar and a to-do list, so are these technologies beyond the Mayor’s abilities?
The troubles with Rockville’s Boards and Commissions was also brought to light in a memo to the Mayor and Council from David Hill, a planning commissioner whose term expired in August 2016:
The Boards and Commission tradition of the City government is faltering in the long term. Truth be told, the City likely has too many boards and commissions, and some once created for reason have out-lived their ongoing usefulness. Communications among these bodies and with the Mayor and Council, is poor to non-existent, which are missed opportunities. This collection of active citizens should act as a cadre of on-board consultants to City policy and decision making, not be window dressing or operate only in institutional silos. Further the City government has marginalized commission service by mild form of neglect and some poorly construed actions. If citizens commit their time (especially as regular volunteers), make sure they have meaningful things to do and listen carefully to their input. This is the best means to engage and promote this service. Most commissioners serve from altruistic motives, genuinely caring for their City and wishing to do good by it; value that like gold. Also, stop beating-up commissions and commissioners publicly. Rather, seize every opportunity to honor their service and utility in governance.
The Council has publicly been mum about the situation except for Councilmember Beryl Feinberg. When she kicked off her campaign in September 2015, Feinberg mentioned her clashes “over the Mayor’s board and commission appointments” with Councilmembers Moore, Onley, and Palakovich Carr. She didn’t provide details, but I hope she doesn’t support maintaining this Mayor-sized loophole to silently keep unelected people in power.