In Our View: Expensive Listening

County should seek efficienciesin costly advisory boards system

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Clark County commissioners are correct to explore consolidation and elimination of advisory boards in hopes of reducing the $1.4 million spent annually to accommodate such groups. We just wish the commissioners were more aggressive and more expeditious than to just approve a pilot program to achieve such efficiencies. Under any circumstances, a million and a half bucks is a huge amount in a county this size, and the magnitude of the money becomes even greater when you consider the county budget has been cut by $62 million in recent years and 270 positions were eliminated.

As Stephanie Rice reported in a Sunday Columbian story, county employees are recommending that the commissioners consider reducing the 50-plus task forces that exist in just five departments: Environmental Services, Community Development, Community Planning, Community Services and Public Works. Although advisory board members are volunteers, the bulk of the expense to taxpayers is the number of county employees required to attend the meetings: an estimated 28,000 hours of staff time, and many of those hours are overtime. The meetings usually are attended by three staff members.

Make no mistake, public input is crucial. It’s the bedrock of the democratic process, and there’s an abundance of local expertise for county commissioners to hear and heed. But a recent presentation by Environmental Services Director Kevin Gray and Karen Streeter, an Environmental Services manager, describes a few of the problems that have been allowed to grow through the years: “unclear missions, duplicating or overlapping tasks, obsolete goals and an overall drain on staff resources” — all while the meter is running on taxpayers’ dollars.

The pilot program will merge three groups — the nine-member Solid Waste Advisory Board, nine-member Clean Water Commission and five-member Noxious Weed Control — into a single Clark County Council on the Environment. But here’s where the well-intentioned effort loses steam: Even though there will be fewer meetings, all 23 of the combined members will continue to serve.

We would also like to see the county become more rigid in establishing and respecting a shelf life for each of the many advisory boards. As the recent presentation to the commissioners noted, advisory boards “are frequently initiated as a result of a specific complaint or issue, and the effort to address the issue often appears to continue after a decision has been made addressing the problem.”

A better way would be to assign to an advisory board chairman the responsibility of knowing precisely when to officially declare: “Goal met. Challenge over. We’re outta here!”

Cumbersome, costly webs of advisory panels are not peculiar to local governments. At the state level, Gov. Chris Gregoire last year wanted to eliminate 32 commissions and save the state about $5 million a year. Sadly, by the time legislators were through looking out for special interests and preserving their pet causes, only five commissions were cut.

Back at the local level, there are multiple ways for the public to become involved without setting up an advisory board. Attend a meeting of the board of county commissioners and sign up to speak. Numerous public hearings are held on virtually every topic imaginable, especially new concepts.

Again, there’s no intent here to stifle public input. But a more efficient system of advisory boards should be pursued, and we hope county commissioners will pick up the pace in that regard.