Serving on a citizen commission in Palo Alto may look to an outsider like a thankless labor of love, full of wonky public hearings, PowerPoint slides and constant reminders that some residents will inevitably be upset at the end of the day.
Now, with applications on the wane and vacancies on the rise, the city is looking to show its volunteers that they are needed and appreciated.
Under a sweeping proposal that a City Council committee endorsed Tuesday night, April 9, the city would revamp its long-standing system for recruiting members to its 10 commissions, which advise the council on everything from zone changes and utility rates to public art and library policies. The plan, which will be implemented by the Office of the City Clerk, includes two regular recruitment periods every year, more staff involvement in recruiting, annual volunteer fairs and recognition events and expanded options for advertising commission vacancies.
The effort was prompted by a dwindling number of candidates and an appointment process that has at times frustrated both council members and applicants. At one point last year, an insufficiently deep candidate pool prompted the council to defer commission appointments to a later date, after more applications could be collected.
"I think there's been some dissatisfaction among people applying that it's a long process to get through," City Clerk Donna Grider said Tuesday. "I think it's also cumbersome (for the city) to get through the process to get someone appointed."
Among the most popular staff proposals was an annual "recognition event" honoring all members of boards and commissions. Staff had recommended holding an event once a year, before a council meeting. The council's four-member Policy and Services Committee decided to take the idea a step further and to make the reception a separate, stand-alone event outside the formal confines of City Hall. Councilman Larry Klein said the city had in the past thrown picnics for commissioners at Foothill Park and lobbied to make the new recognition event "a bigger deal" than what was proposed by Grider's office. He proposed holding it at a separate location and his colleagues agreed.
"I think it gives off more good vibes than having some little tea-and-crumpets event somewhere in the lobby, which, I must say, is not the warmest place for an event," Klein said.
His committee colleagues, Karen Holman, Liz Kniss and Gail Price, all agreed, with Kniss calling the proposed events "motivating."
"It's a good chance to recognize what someone has done and to talk about it at an event," Kniss said.
Another annual event that the committee endorsed is a fair that would bring area volunteers together and allow them to talk to current commissioners and learn about opportunities to serve. Deputy City Clerk Ronna Gonsalves said the volunteer fair would feature tables for boards and commissions and computers set up for applications.
The committee unanimously supported the idea, with Holman saying the events will bring "more panache and more credibility to the board and commission positions."
The committee endorsed, on a series of votes, a variety of other changes to the existing process. One would limit all council interviews for aspiring commissioners to 10 minutes per applicant (the only exception would be applicants for the Planning and Transportation Commission, who will get up to 15 minutes). Another would align the start and end dates for commission tenures in two batches, with roughly half concluding their terms on April 30 and the other half on Oct. 31 (currently, end dates for different commissions are scattered all over the calendar). The new schedule would allow the city to split its recruiting process into two phases, one in the spring and one in the fall.
Another change would give the city clerk more latitude in advertising for commission openings. Currently, the city is required to run ads for recruitment in a general-circulation newspaper -- in this case, the Weekly. While this would remain an option, the committee agreed to modify the Municipal Code to allow the city clerk to "include ads in any newspaper, online ads, e-blasts, fliers or other appropriate media."
"This will allow staff the flexibility to explore new avenues," a report from Office of the City Clerk states. "The goal with this revision is to be less prescriptive with how the recruitment can be advertised while still ensuring a transparent process."