Archive for Friday, June 30, 2006

Only advisory

If they choose to use it, Lawrence voters already have more power than citizen advisory boards to influence city policy.

June 30, 2006


Lawrence is fascinated with the idea of advisory boards.

At last count, the city had about 40 of these citizen boards doling out advice to city commissioners on subjects ranging from traffic safety to recycling.

Now, some want another one. This time the topic du jour is a Police Advisory Board that would both review and advise the City Commission and the police chief on law enforcement policies and practices. It presumably also would be a place for people who are dissatisfied with the police department to express their concerns.

Many of the city's advisory boards do good work and are filled with good people. But the city should think carefully before it adds more, and likely should scrutinize its existing list to ensure that all the boards still are necessary.

If left unchecked, these boards will slowly but surely increase the bureaucratic process that Lawrence residents must endure to receive action on a variety of issues. Everyone has heard the saying that you can't fight City Hall. Unfortunately, sometimes that's true because you can't find your way through it.

Seeking advice from residents is a worthy activity for any City Commission. But in today's technological world there are much easier ways. The city could use the Internet to create online forums on any number of topics. For those without Internet access, a phone system that allows people to record their thoughts could be used. Such systems wouldn't replace every advisory board, but they would allow the city to pare back on some of the more marginal ones. It would create a significant savings in staff time, and would in many cases make it easier for people to make comments.

Advisory boards often don't accomplish what residents who promote them want anyway. For example, it is unrealistic to think that an advisory board will have a significant impact on the way the police department conducts business. With or without the added bureaucracy of an advisory board, police leaders will continue to use their best professional judgment to do a job that invariably is going to leave a certain segment of our population upset.

Instead of focusing on advisory boards, residents who are upset about something in city government should recognize that they have plenty of power already, and much more than an advisory board.

The city manager has complete authority over every city department. The city manager serves solely at the pleasure of the City Commission. And guess who city commissioners serve at the pleasure of? Of course, that's you the voter.

There continues to be nothing more powerful in Lawrence city politics than a constantly ringing phone of a city commissioner. If something is important enough to you and your neighbors, a phone call to a city commissioner almost certainly will assure that your issue gets a hearing.

There's a simple reason for that. In the final analysis, phone calls from voters carry much more weight than a recommendation from an advisory board. Commissioners are smart enough to know that the people on the other end of the phone aren't advisers. Come election time, they're decision-makers.


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