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By Brian Park

San Juan Capistrano’s citizen commissions, committees and boards are set to undergo several changes that aim to improve the efficiency of City Hall and make the city more business friendly.

The City Council on Tuesday, November 13, approved changes to the city’s commission structure, including reducing the number of planning commissioners, creating a new Investment Advisory Committee and making the Transportation Commission a subgroup of the Planning Commission, much like the Design Review Committee.

The changes are a part of the City Council’s Urgent Strategic Priorities list and represent an effort to make City Hall easier for businesses to navigate.

A subcommittee of Mayor Larry Kramer and Mayor Pro Tem John Taylor met with commission chairpersons to receive their input. Kramer, Taylor and City Manager Karen Brust also met with their counterparts from the cities of Brea, Dana Point, Laguna Niguel, Mission Viejo and San Clemente to see how those cities’ commissions worked.

Among the changes include:

  • Prospective commissioners will be interviewed and voted upon during open sessions of the City Council.
  • The Planning Commission will be reduced from seven to five members. Their terms will be staggered starting next June and March thereafter. City Clerk Maria Morris will conduct a random drawing to determine which commissioners will serve a two-year or one-year term to initiate staggered terms.
  • The Design Review Committee will be reduced from four to three members, including two at-large members and one Planning Commissioner.
  • Like the Design Review Committee, the Transportation Commission will now be a subgroup of the Planning Commission and will consist of two at-large members and one Planning Commissioner.
  • A new Investment Advisory Committee will be formed to advise the City Council on the city’s investments. They are set to meet on a quarterly basis. The new committee is to be independent of the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Ad-Hoc Committee. Rob Ferguson, chairman of the Open Space, Trails and Equestrian Commission and former member of the bond oversight committee, informed the council that bond oversight committee members are precluded from serving on other city commissions.
  • Excluding the Youth Advisory Board, new candidates for commissions will be appointed next June and March thereafter.
  • Should a commissioner vacate his or her seat, the replacement candidate will be interviewed by the City Council and serve out the remainder of the term they are replacing.
  • Regular commission meetings will be held monthly, except for the Planning Commission, which will continue to meet twice monthly.

Several commissioners addressed the council with some of their concerns with the changes.

Kathy Hooper, a member of the Parks, Recreation and Senior Services Commission, asked the council whether it was possible to limit public comment during open session interviews.

“I agree that it would be a good idea in an open forum, however, there are people in this town who would see it as an opportunity to slam dunk a person,” Hooper said.

According to City Attorney Hans Van Ligten, state law requires the council to allow for public comment if an item is on the agenda, including an open interview.

Steve Behmerwohld, also of the Parks, Recreation and Senior Services Commission, urged the council to reconsider their decisions regarding commissions that have little effect on City Hall’s ability to work with businesses.

“I know you’re trying to streamline the process for businesses, but I don’t think the majority of commissions have anything to do with that,” Behmerwohld said.

The council voted against reducing Utilities Commission meetings from a monthly to a quarterly basis after hearing testimony from Chairman Lee Goode and Commissioner Richard Hartl.

“I was flabbergasted by some of the things that were in this and behind it,” Hartl said. “I think it would be a huge mistake to go from 12 (meetings) to four.”

Councilwoman Laura Freese was adamant in her support for the Utilities Commission, citing their importance in dealing with the city’s water issues.

“Water is the big topic. That was the number one topic in the election. We’re going to lose their expertise,” Freese said before the vote. “I just know that when I get something about water, I always see what the commission has to say…quarterly basis is not enough.”

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