COUNTY COMMISSIONS

INTRODUCTION

The hundreds of hours annually volunteered by County commissioners results in tremendous savings to County taxpayers.

Were it necessary to replace this dedicated group of approximately 750 volunteers with staff, it would be a fiscal disaster for the County. The cost of hiring, training, and paying these people would add up to millions of dollars each year. There would also be the additional problems of finding workspace and parking for new staff. (See 2000-2001 Grand Jury report on County Government Space Needs: Problems and Proposed Remedies.)

Commissions are formed to assist Federal, State, County, and City governments in a wide variety of ways. Their legal authority stems from government mandates. County mandated commissions are often formed to assist the Board of Supervisors in studying a subject in depth or to assist a County department.

This report is the result of a comment by a County elected official who told the Grand Jury that commissions might be a good area for the Jury to study as, "there might be too many of them." The official went on to say that it was unclear as to what all the commissions do.

PROCEDURES

A request was sent to the Clerk of the Board to furnish any and all data concerning County commissions. The data received included lists of 80 commissions, and reported when each was formed, the number of members to be appointed to each, members’ names and length of terms, and who appointed each commissioner.

The Grand Jury then interviewed four of the five Santa Barbara County Supervisors, with one Supervisor declining. Most Supervisors were enthusiastic about the work done by the commissions, specifically that being done on behalf of County departments. Several commissions received high praise, while other evaluations were not as favorable.

The Jury learned that the interaction of most Supervisors with their appointed commissioners is often slight and, in at least one case, almost nonexistent. There seems to be a general consensus among the Supervisors that once a commissioner is appointed, "hands off" is the best policy. Also, there appears to be no specific procedure for a commissioner to report back to his or her appointing Supervisor. Although the Supervisors’ "hands off" policy seems to be well intentioned, it leaves most commissions with little or no oversight.

After interviewing the Supervisors, the Jury sent a questionnaire randomly to approximately 150 commissioners who sit on the 80 commissions. The questionnaires were mailed in mid February 2001 with a request to complete them and return them to the Grand Jury by March 2001.

Only 30% were returned. One of the reasons for the small sample, the Jury later learned, is that the mailing list is not current. Although the Clerk of the Board does keep a list, there is no procedure in place, or person in charge, of keeping the list up to date.

Many replies about the effectiveness of commissions, from commissioners who did respond, were positive. Some respondents, however, said the commission on which they sat was a waste of time. Three reasons cited for negative responses were a lack of meetings, lack of an appropriate meeting space, and domination of the commission by one or two people.

A few replies indicated that some respondents were no longer serving on a commission, or that the commission to which they had been appointed was no longer meeting. In 1994 a County commission audit was undertaken and several commissions were disbanded because they were no longer active or effective or their funding was no longer available. Another audit needs to be done.

Most commissioners volunteer their time without being compensated for their effort. Many are not even allocated mileage, so, in effect, it costs them money to be a commissioner. Members on 11 of the 80 commissions currently receive a per diem, with per diem amounts ranging from $25 to $300.

The five members of the highly visible County Planning Commission receive what seems like a generous stipend of $300 per diem for their weekly meeting. Members are not compensated, however, for the five or more days weekly that they put into site visits, reviewing cases, and studying land use issues.

Several commission chairpersons were interviewed by the Grand Jury and, for the most part, their commissions seemed organized, had a monthly agenda, and a permanent meeting schedule. The Grand Jury concluded after these interviews that many commissions are visible and effective; some have morphed into other, more effective configurations; and some never quite got off the ground.

The Mental Health Commission is an example of a commission that is fully operational and has a real impact on the functions of the department it advises, Alcohol, Drug & Mental Health Services (ADMHS), according to the outgoing ADMHS department Director. The 17-member commission, mandated by the State, is comprised of one member and one alternate member from the Board of Supervisors; one physician and one psychiatrist; five persons from mental health professions; five recipients of County mental health services or their close relatives; and four members of the general public. Most recently the Commission has participated in, and offered advice on, the hiring of a new ADMHS Director. It is moving forward with discussions on County-supported housing for clients. The commission also has an outreach program that goes into schools and the greater community to answer questions and dispel myths about mental health issues.

Another active group is the County Park Commission, created by County resolution in January 1953. It is a five-member board charged with advising the Board of Supervisors on all matters concerning the operation and maintenance of County parks. It also establishes County policies and drafts budgets for the further development of the County park system.

According to the County Director of Parks, commissioners have a regular monthly meeting where the range of park-related agenda items might include discussion of the site for a proposed dog park enclosure, a Park Operations Status report, a discussion of equipping parks with handicap accessibility, and consideration of a citizen complaint regarding the facilities at a certain park. Once the commission makes a recommendation on an issue, it is taken to the Board of Supervisors by the Parks Department Director.

The Emergency Medical Care Committee was originally approved by the Board of Supervisors in 1985 to be comprised of 21 members who would review (1) the operations of the ambulance service operating in the County, (2) emergency medical care offered within the County, and (3) first aid practices in the County.

The 21 members were to include 10 consumer members, two appointed by each of the five Supervisors, as well as representatives from the medical community, hospitals, fire departments, law enforcement, the American Red Cross, the UCSB Health Center, an ambulance provider, the Director of County Health Care Services, ADMHS, the Office of Emergency Management, and an emergency department physician.

In the early 1990s, this commission, due to a lack of interest and participation in the overall group operations evolved into five separate committees, each with a more specifically targeted concern. Those groups now include (1) an emergency and disaster planning group, (2) a disaster preparedness committee, (3) an emergency advisory medical committee, (4) a basic life support task force, and (5) a trauma advisory committee. Each committee reports to both the EMS Director and the EMS Medical Director.

The Animal Health Commission, however, is an example of why the County needs to update its commissions list. This commission is not active. Authorized by County ordinance in 1974, it is on the books as a 17-member commission with two principal tasks. They are (1) acting as a liaison between the Director of Animal Health and Regulation (now Animal Services) and animal interest groups, and (2) acting as a steering committee in areas of animal health and population control.

According to the current Director of Animal Services, to which the commission is meant to report, she has never been sent a meeting agenda or received a recommendation from the commission in the two years she has been the Director. A questionnaire response from one member of the commission suggested the reason was that the commission has not met for years.

With no one person overseeing the commission meeting agendas and membership roles, it is easy to see how this could happen. Once this problem is exposed, no one seems to be in charge of deciding whether the commission should be revived with a new, more conscientious membership, or if it should be officially disbanded.

CONCLUSIONS

Once appointed, some commissions supporting County departments have little or no direction after their initial training. For the most part, they receive little oversight or contact with the County departments they are meant to support.

The Grand Jury suggests the Board of Supervisors consider an update and review of County commissions. This would not only keep the data up to date but would assist the Clerk of the Board in providing accurate information for the public service Web site the Clerk is developing. Information in the update should include

The Jury suggests that Supervisors exercise more oversight of their commissioners and meet with them on a regular basis, not just once a year.

FINDINGS

Finding 1: There is no person in County government charged with the oversight of all County commissions to assist with, and keep track of, each commission’s activities.

Finding 2: Some commissions have ceased to function effectively.

Finding 3: Although County commissioners are charged with taking great responsibility for the functioning of County government, they receive little oversight, even from the Supervisors who have appointed them.

Finding 4: There may be a need for one or more new commissions, including one to oversee the facilities growth of the County.

Finding 5: Some commissions do not submit annual reports to the Board of Supervisors.

Finding 6: Many commissioners do not receive either mileage or per diem to cover expenses.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Recommendation 1: The Board of Supervisors should direct the Clerk of the Board office to assign or hire a staff member who would assist, support and keep track of each commission’s activities, membership, mandated reports and adherence to their mission statement (duties).

Recommendation 2: The newly appointed staff member overseeing commissions should make a thorough assessment of how functional each commission is and if it should be continued.

Recommendation 3: Supervisors should exercise more oversight of the commissioners they appoint, requiring regular meetings, commission meeting agendas, and periodic written reports.

Recommendation 4: In addition to disbanding non-functional commissions, the Board of Supervisors should continue to create new commissions to help achieve County goals when warranted.

Recommendation 5: All commissions should submit an annual report to the Board of Supervisors.

Recommendation 6: All commissioners should receive mileage compensation.

AFFECTED AGENCY

Board of Supervisors
All Findings
All Recommendations