Communication, Collaboration Stressed in Commission Roundup

A meeting among the Leesburg Town Council and the leadership of its boards, commissions, and committees, yielded some central themes Monday night.

The council had convened the meeting after beginning a discussion earlier this year on the structure, purpose, and goals of its 13 advisory panels. Council members ultimately decided it was best to hear directly from the groups and Monday night brought together the chairs or vice chairs of the town’s citizen advisory bodies.

What became evident early on in the meeting was that many residents missed the input and connection to council members. During its January organizational meeting, the council had voted to do away with council liaisons to the panels, citing an already heavy workload and a desire not to feel like they were influencing the outcome of their discussions.

“When we lost the liaison position that’s been an adjustment for us,” John Binkley, chairman of the Technology and Communications Commission, said. “Previously, we felt like we had more visibility into what the council was thinking about, what their concerns were, how we could help on an ongoing fashion. We also felt that our concerns and advice was going back to the council. I think it’s an absolutely critical issue because we’re feeling a little blind right now.”

Binkley suggested having council members attend on a quarterly basis so both parties could stay informed. Commissions could even have a quarterly report prepared, some suggested.

It’s an idea that the majority of the chairs and vice chairs got behind.

“I agree with [the idea of a] quarterly liaison,” Tom O’Neil, chairman of the Public Art Commission, said. “We sometimes feel like we’re operating in somewhat of a vacuum. We get ideas from the public or other members of the commission, but sometimes it would be nice to have council involved a little earlier than something that shows up on your work session agenda or for [a vote for] approval.”

Only Brody McCray, vice chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission, said the current system was working fine as it is.

“We don’t feel it necessary to have council there,” he said. “Our opinion is that each one of us has our relationship with the council member [who appointed us]. To have someone there to watch and observe we don’t feel is necessary.”

Mayor Kelly Burk asked those present if attendance at meetings, and reaching a quorum, was a problem. The council had previously tossed around the idea of tying the small stipend most citizen-led bodies receive to attendance. Councilman Marty Martinez also put the onus on commission chairs to report to the Town Council if its members are having trouble showing up at meetings. The council has authority to appoint and dismiss members from the panels.

Sandy Grossman, chairman of the Standing Residential Traffic Committee, said it was a two-way street.

“Could you please watch who you appoint to the committees and we will be delighted to give you feedback,” he told the council. “It’s a matter of the individuals who are on the committee and how you guys look at them and screen them yourselves.”

Enrique Gonzalez, chairman of the Diversity Commission, also asked council members to more quickly fill vacancies on the bodies. His commission, for example, has two vacancies out of seven seats. Four must attend a meeting to make quorum.

Most chairs and vice chairs agreed that compensation was not a factor in getting member to participate, but rather feeling that one’s work was adding value.

“What drives attendance is the feeling that you’re doing meaningful and productive work,” Binkley said. “I think establishing good communications and expectations coming from council and back will do far, far more than any attendance issues.”

Airport Commission Chairman Dennis Boykin also noted that the goal should be driving performance and results.

“Just showing up to a meeting doesn’t cut it. I think it’s about what you’re getting done,” Boykin said. “The amount of money we’re paying in stipends isn’t going to drive people sitting around this table to do one thing or another.”

Stipends for most commissions are relatively low, at around $50/month. Some commission members elect not to take the stipend or take it and donate it to charity, they noted.

The chairs and vice chairs present all said total restructuring, or combining, of boards, committees and commissions was not necessary. But perhaps more collaboration is.

“It’s something that we have to do as the commissions to get to know each other a lot better and to work together more efficiently as a town and help you be more successful,” Gonzalez said to the council.

It’s worked well for several of the bodies who have worked together. The Diversity Commission and Economic Development Commission teamed up to work together on town business surveys. The Planning Commission has also reached out to several boards and commissions on occasion, Chairwoman Lyndsay Chamblin said, including the Board of Architectural Review, Tree Commission, and Technology and Communications Commission.

Peter Vanderloo, chairman of the Board of Zoning Appeals, suggest that the council organize an annual meeting of the commissions, committees, and boards so they all can get an idea of what each other is working on, and potentially spur ideas for collaboration.

Many also said they liked the idea of reprising Monday night’s meeting between Town Council and chairs on an annual basis.

The council is expected to discuss some of the insights from Monday night’s meeting at a future work session. Councilman Ron Campbell said he is hopeful the council can relook at council liaisons and ensure that the citizen-led bodies’ purpose and the goals of the council are intertwined.

“I’m hoping that we can really look at the purpose of your commission as it relates to the purpose of our work,” he said. “You’re actually the arms and the legs and the eyes and the ears of council’s extensive reach.”

krodriguez@loudounnow.com

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