Citizen advisory board members speak truth to power

The Truth or Consequences City Commission asked for citizen advisory board members thoughts on combining boards to solve problems with filling board positions and absenteeism. Two city commissioners listened—Mayor Rolf Hechler and City Commissioner Ingo Hoeppner.

Mayor Pro Tem Amanda Forrister and City Commissioners Merry Jo Fahl and Destiny Mitchell failed to take in much of what was said.

The beginning of the May 22 city commission meeting was a “workshop” in which all members of the Public Utility Advisory Board, Planning and Zoning Commission and Airport Advisory Board were asked to attend.

Robert McGuire, from the AAB attended, but David Senn and Mark Shipley did not. Jeff Dornbusch and Gil Avelar, from the PUAB attended, but Don Armijo did not. Chris Sisney and Esther Luchini, from the P&Z attended, but Susie Buhler and Lisa Kent did not.

Each board is supposed to have five members. The AAB is down two, the PUAB is down two and the P&Z is down one member.

Only Dornbusch and Sisney spoke about the reasons for low interest and lack of participation on city advisory boards.

Dornbusch said combining boards would “exacerbate the problems” the city is trying to solve. “The motivation to volunteer is to help. That motivation has been taken away.”

People volunteer for specialized boards in their area of knowledge or interest, Dornbusch said. Combining boards would dilute expertise, opening the door to “a strong personality” taking over the board who has no knowledge of the issue at hand. An emphasis on “personalities, instead of making informed decisions,” is already a problem that “would be amplified,” Dornbusch said.

Forrister interrupted Dornbusch. “You aren’t deciding. You are making recommendations.”

“Ignoring our advice takes incentive away [to be on a citizen advisory board or to attend meetings],” Dornbusch responded. McGuire and Sisney later concurred that the city commission ignored their respective boards’ recommendations and advice as well.

The city shows no appreciation for board members, Dornbusch said, suggesting a yearly dinner or best-board-member-of-the-month awards.

The city, for its part, is supposed to give board members information about city departments so they may be of real use. “I know very little about what is going on,” Dornbusch said.

“When I started,” Dornbusch said, utility department heads reported to the PUAB each monthly meeting. “That’s been up-ended for several administrations. I spoke with the wastewater department head and was told not to,” Dornbusch said. “I feel threatened.”

“Now I am required to speak to one person who doesn’t have the background to answer,” Dornbusch said.

Hechler responded that “Department heads can’t attend every meeting.”

The PUAB changed to an earlier meeting time so department heads could attend during work hours, Dornbusch responded, and then they had one utility department head report each meeting, and now they have zero staff reports. At a recent meeting the city manager attended and her report consisted of “bragging about her achievements,” Dornbusch said.

Dornbusch gave examples of the PUAB being left in the dark. The city failed use the board’s expertise or seek its advice about possibly selling the electric facility to Sierra Electric Cooperative, which was done by the city commission behind closed doors for three years, ending in no sale, which was briefly announced about five months ago. “Selling the electric department shook us. We stewed for years,” Dornbusch said. “The lack of thought and information that went into that was just crazy.”

No information was given or help sought from the PUAB when the recurring problem of water tanks get down to 10 feet, Dornbusch said. The board is well aware that low tanks mean low pressure, which means lack of water transmission and danger of hydrants being useless in case of fires.

Forrister responded to Dornbusch by asking if he was thinking of resigning. Dornbusch said he’s filled out the paperwork but not submitted it yet. If things don’t change, he said, he will give up “the anxiety and heartache.”

“We can’t get specialized people to sign up for these boards,” Forrister said, and board members “can’t help the city commission if they don’t attend meetings,” which are consequently cancelled due to lack of a quorum. “Then we have to jump through those hoops [the city commission takes the board’s agenda items and rules without board input] along with everything else [city commission agenda items].”

Fahl replied to Dornbusch by giving him more work. Board members must do the recruiting to fill vacancies, “because we’ve advertised over and over,” and “you know this stuff,” she said, while agreeing the city commission has “failed to recognize your dedication.” If board members don’t recruit, “then we have no choice,” but to combine boards, Fahl said.

Mitchell suggested that the golf, airport and recreation board combine as a seven-member board and that the P&Z, PUAB and Impact Advisory board should combine as a seven-member board, thus reducing the need to recruit as many board members. Evidently Mitchell is unaware that golf and recreation have already combined and P&Z and Impact boards have the same membership, having already combined in a fashion.

None of the three, Forrister, Fahl and Mitchell, seemed to get Dornbusch’s main point. Without information and regular reports from the city, city advisory boards become merely performative. Rubber stamping is not a draw; it’s a drag and scares away people who are truly interested in working.

Fahl asked to hear from the P&Z.

Sisney said, “I agree with everything [Dornbusch] said. I’m not sure what kind of government this city is operating under. It is not a representative government.”

“I don’t feel like I’m doing anything, that everything is predetermined,” Sisney said. “I don’t know why it’s called planning and zoning because we do no planning. We’re just stamping our approval. . . It feels like a waste of time.”

“Boards are problems for the city,” Sisney said. “The city doesn’t want these boards.”

Concerning combining boards, Sisney said, “I don’t see how it will work.”

“It’s apparent to me we have failed your board,” Hechler said. “Maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree here [in trying to combine boards]. We don’t want to alienate the few working for us. We need to go back to the drawing board and work harder.”

Hechler asked that the board members put on their next agenda discussion of what they need in the way of support from the city commission and city staff.

Hoeppner said that as a Parks & Recreation Board member for many years, “I understand this wall [of resistance from city staff and the city commission]. Hoeppner said his bid for information or to put forth ideas was rejected with the need to keep the status quo. “We’ve always done it this way,” was the oft-repeated refrain, he said.

“I’m for keeping the boards as they are,” Hoeppner said.

What’s needed is a “specialty board,” Hoeppner said, that consists of one member from each citizen advisory board that will meet twice a year to work on “planning and the future.” Hechler agreed this was a good idea.

Hechler suggested they table the agenda item to combine boards, which motion passed unanimously.

TAGS

Share This Post
Kathleen Sloan
Kathleen Sloan

Kathleen Sloan has been a local-government reporter for 17 years, covering counties and cities in three states—New Mexico, Iowa and Florida. She has also covered the arts for various publications in Virginia, New Mexico and Iowa. Sloan worked for the Truth or Consequences Herald newspaper from 2006 to 2013; it closed December 2019. She returned to T or C in 2019 and founded the online newspaper, the Sierra County Sun, with Diana Tittle taking the helm as editor during the last year and a half of operation. The Sun closed December 2021, concurrent with Sloan retiring. SierraCountySun.org is still an open website, with hundreds of past articles still available. Sloan is now a board member of the not-for-profit organization, the Sierra County Public-Interest Journalism Project, which supported the Sun and is currently sponsoring the Sierra County Citizen, another free and open website. Sloan is volunteering as a citizen journalist, covering the T or C beat. She can be reached at kathleen.sloan@gmail.com or 575-297-4146.

Posts: 112

5 Comments

  1. Interesting that Forrister is quoted as saying “we can’t get specialized people for these boards”. When a retired librarian with a Masters degree and 45 years of professional librarian experience mostly in public library administration applied to fill a vacancy on the library board(around 2020) The commission failed to appoint this qualified and experienced specialized person to the library advisory board. Wasn’t Forrester on the commission which rubber stamped the city’s choice for library advisory board member at that time? I believe this publication published a piece on it.

  2. A clarification to: “Evidently Mitchell is unaware that golf and recreation have already combined and P&Z and Impact boards have the same membership, having already combined in a fashion.”

    Commissioner Mitchell was aware that golf and recreation have already combined considering it was on her recommendation that those two boards merge to begin with as both had difficulties retaining members. She was also aware that the P&Z and Impact Boards were merged as well, nothing that both boards consisted of the same members.

  3. It is very interesting that the current members tell the commissioners what the problems are yet they choose to just ignore those comments. Having been on 2 advisory boards, I can confirm that the boards are treated as unnecessary wastes of time for the city. With all the problems the city has, you’d think they would be making a sincere effort to promote board involvement but the problems have only gotten worse over the last several years and I see no indication anything will change with the current administration. That’s why I gave up.

  4. The P&Zoning Board is giving sound recommendations to the City Commissioners. To my knowledge not one meeting has been cancelled due to not having a quorum of the P&Zoning board members.
    These boards should stand on their own. I don’t know of a city or county here in N.M. that has gotten rid of these types of boards they have embraced, fostered, and appreciated them.
    Ultimately the city needs a planner and a building inspector. Not having these will cause major problems down the road for our city.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment Fields

Please tell us where you live. *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.