It takes a special kind of a volunteer serve on a local commission in Palo Alto, one with a thick skin, an analytical brain, a patient demeanor and a willingness to wade knee-deep into policy muck on issues ranging from cigarette smoke and sidewalk widths to public sculptures and storm drains.
Given the indisputable challenges and the unquantifiable rewards, city officials this week passed a broad package of reforms aiming to bring in more applicants and to make serving more attractive. By a unanimous vote Monday, the City Council agreed to modify the city's policies to allow commission recruitment on a rolling basis throughout the year; to give the City Clerks' office more options for advertising commission openings; to give staff and current commissioners a bigger role in recruitment and to hold an annual recognition event for local volunteers.
The package of reforms aims to breathe some life into a process that many in the community feel has "gone stale," said Deputy City Clerk Ronna Gonsalves, who coordinates the city's recruitment program and who has been working for the past year on the reforms.
The approved program also includes a volunteer fair in March 2014 that will feature a table for each commission and creation of a mentoring program for commissioners.
Another change that the clerk's office has lobbied for and that the council approved Monday is giving her office more flexibility over advertising for commission openings. The clerk's office traditionally advertised with the Weekly, the city's newspaper of general circulation. Now, the office will have more leeway to consider social-media options and other newspapers. The city will also change term dates on some commissions to allow for two scheduled recruitment periods each year. Currently between the scheduled recruitments and resignation, the city holds an average of 11 recruitments annually, according to Gonsalves' report.
In the event of a commissioner resignation, the council will have the option of filling the vacancy immediately or waiting until the next scheduled recruitment. Under the new schedule, the Human Relations Commission, the Library Advisory Commission, the Public Art Commission and the Utility Advisory Commission will have recruitment in April. For the Historic Resources Board, the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Planning and Transportation Commission and the Storm Drain Oversight Committee, recruitment would take place in October.
The new recruitment program was refined in recent months by the council's Policy and Services Committee, which in April recommended adopting the changes. Committee Chair Liz Kniss praised the program for being innovative and for potentially saving the city money. It will also make serving more rewarding, the council agreed.
"The groups that do this do this without getting paid, without any compensation whatsoever, and I think they make a big difference in a city like this," Kniss said.
Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilwoman Karen Holman both praised the program, calling the changes "long overdue." Holman said she believes the new program "will result in more excitement about our recruitments and hopefully more appreciation for the work our commissions do."
Gonsalves also urged city leaders to become more engaged in the recruitment process by reaching out to their contacts through Facebook posts, tweets and email lists. This will greatly expand the list of applicants for commissions, she said. The council agreed, though several members warned against making the process too clubby. While Councilman Greg Schmid didn't oppose giving the clerk's office more leeway to explore other advertising options, he also urged clerks to continue to devote some of its resources to avenues that reach the general public.
"I do want to emphasize that reaching out to the general public -- not just internal contacts, people who are already part of the system -- is an important and valuable thing," Schmid said.
Councilman Pat Burt agreed and suggested setting up recruitment tables at special events such as hackathons and art fairs, which already feature city booths. He also warned that there is a "flip side" to having staff and council members help with recruitment: the danger that the process would become "an insiders game" and that it would be "more of a closed circle than an open one."
Burt added language, which the rest of the council supported, specifying that the intent is to attract a "larger and more diverse portion of the community."