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As the city and community landscape has changed, so too should the commission

Jonathan Volzke
Jonathan Volzke

By Jonathan Volzke

I applaud the City Council for holding public interviews for the Planning Commission—a first for the city. I just wish there’d been more people to interview.

A quick refresh: Previously, those who wanted to serve on any of the city’s commissions (and we have more than just about any other Orange County city) filled out a paper application. The City Council would then appoint a subcommittee of fewer than three members to review them, conduct interviews if necessary and make a sweeping recommendation to the full council for the committee appointments.

But because it was just two council members doing that work, it was all done, legally, behind closed doors. And almost always, the full council would approve the recommended appointments with no changes and hardly any discussion.

There’s no doubt the process worked to a great degree: We have some fine commissioners (all volunteers) doing some fine work for the city. Commissions, each with a different area of responsibility, essentially review proposed developments and other projects. The idea is each project gets some expert vetting—in traffic, cultural heritage, etc.—before it reaches the council. Oftentimes, commissioners stand as guard dogs to our image of San Juan Capistrano: tearing at projects that don’t fit in and growling enough to scare others away outright.

But it also failed us, too. Without substantive discussion from the dais, there was no way to tell what council members were looking for in a commissioner, and therefore, what they were looking for in the future of the city. And when you hear that San Juan Capistrano is “not business friendly,” it’s often coming from someone who has tangled with a commission or two … or three or four.

The new process, of public interviews for the Planning Commission, came after Mayor John Taylor and Larry Kramer took a look at how other cities deal with their commissions. Their work resulted in the elimination of the housing and transportation commissions as they stood and the addition of public interviews for planning.

The public process was carefully orchestrated. The applicants filled out a questionnaire in advance, council members reviewed it. The applicants made a timed statement and the council members asked a set number of questions, all in public. They’re due to announce their decisions—again made in public—next month.

This is a far better process to allow us insight as to what council members are looking for in commissioners. As I said, my only complaint is that only eight people—including all five of the incumbents—applied. I like and respect all of Planning Commissioners—there are some incredibly smart men on that dais—but commissions shouldn’t be a lifelong job. Some of them have sat up there for as long as I’ve been in town.

Now, it’s easy to say they’re only there until the council doesn’t want them there, but that’s only partly true. A past council tried to make some changes and managed to only pass a policy that 20 percent of the commissioners change during appointments. Even that watered-down effort was pushed aside.

The commissioners bring a lot of professional expertise, and there’s something to be said for the stability and wealth of knowledge they bring, again, as volunteers, to the community. But there should also be a sense of knowing when it’s time to leave the party, to step aside and let some new blood in.

For all the advantages of stability and background, the benefits of change may be more important now than ever. The city and its residents are changing and we have to ensure that commissioners are in touch with the community. Sitting in a quasi-authoritative position for a decade or more can create tunnel vision, too, where it’s easy to shut out new ideas. Finally, commissions can prove to be excellent training grounds for future leaders. That gives an individual a chance to learn a bit how government works and also gives the public a chance to weigh their actions, to create a record for a candidate.

The city is evolving under new leadership and elected officials, and the commission-selection process is finally starting to change, too. The public interviews and appointments are a tremendous first step, but it will be disappointing if it’s the last.

San Juan Capistrano resident Jonathan Volzke is the founder of The Capistrano Dispatch and now works for Faubel Public Affairs.

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