Archive for Thursday, June 3, 2004

Study to weigh reliance on task forces

Group to review growing use by city of advisory panels

June 3, 2004


Call it a task force on task forces.

The Douglas County chapter of the League of Women Voters is convening a committee to study task force proliferation in Lawrence city government and to find out whose voices are being heard.

"The city is relying, to a greater and greater extent, on the recommendations of task forces which are appointed without much standardized criteria," said Caleb Morse, league president.

Consider, for example, that before there was a city indoor smoking ban, there was the Smoking Task Force.

The six-member group, appointed by then-Mayor David Dunfield last spring and led by Lawrence resident David Kingsley, met for a year to examine the medical effects of secondhand smoke. The group's findings sparked the Lawrence City Commission's decision to ban smoking in public places.

"I like being involved in city government. It's something I can do for the city," Kingsley, owner of the research firm GRI Research, said Wednesday.

The smoking ban is just one example of the growing number, and power, of temporary task forces at City Hall.

Voices heard

The recent spate of task forces started in 2001, when then-Mayor Jim Henry appointed a committee to revamp the city's tax-abatement policy, which had come under fire during an aborted attempt by American Eagle Outfitters to build a warehouse east of the city.

After the "smart-growth" slate of Progressive Lawrence Campaign candidates swept into office in April 2003, the task force trend picked up steam. During Dunfield's year as mayor, four task forces to help craft policies and direction were appointed: on smoking, homelessness, business and the costs of Lawrence growth.

There appear to be two reasons for starting a task force. Either the topic is controversial, such as tax abatements and smoking, or commissioners expect the topic will require a lot of work.

"We form task forces when we feel like there are a number of stakeholders whose opinions need to be heard and who need to work through the issue with the commission," Dunfield, now a commissioner, said this week.

Why? How?

Morse said he was not sure what the league's study would find. Members, who conducted their first meeting Wednesday night, want to ensure task forces represent the entire community.

"My main concern is that some of these task forces are not very well publicized," he said. "So in terms of casting the net as broadly as possible, we're not doing as good a job as we can ... to find the broadest representation."

"I'm not sure there can be a single formula," Dunfield said. "I think it varies somewhat from issue to issue -- the essence of it is, you try to identify who the major stakeholders are. You try to pick people who can represent those interests and work together as part of a larger group."

Indeed, the smoking task force was composed of health advocates and business owners. The other task forces are similarly composed of a mix of experts and community members.


Morse suggested that City Hall should develop standards for how task forces are formed, the direction they're given and the assistance they receive from city staff.

That suggestion was welcomed by Kingsley, who now serves on a Business Retention Task Force charged with finding ways to keep companies in Lawrence.

"I think the city needs to stand back and look at those task forces," Kingsley said. "I'm not complaining; we (the smoking task force) just sort of felt our own way. I would like to see some training, some sort of manual."

Kingsley said task forces provided residents with a direct hand in crafting city policy.

"It's a do-gooder thing," he said, "but it is something that we're making input into City Hall."

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