Proposed changes prompted by audit, complaints from public
By David Garrick, San Diego Union Tribune
JAN. 7, 2020
San Diego is making significant changes to how the city’s four dozen boards and commissions operate in response to a highly critical audit and complaints from the public about a lack of diversity.
The boards and commissions, which advise the city on everything from parks to police misconduct, have been criticized for weak transparency, lack of accountability and not reflecting the city’s population, especially regarding income and ethnicity.
Critics say that the required background investigations and credit checks for applicants have discouraged many poor and minority residents from volunteering to serve on boards.
A 2017 city audit found that roughly half of the several hundred board positions in the city were vacant, making it hard to reach meeting quorums and prompting many boards to allow members to serve beyond when their terms expire.
Other critics say the boards are too homogeneous, with the bulk of their members being white, middle-aged residents who come from a small group of mostly wealthy neighborhoods.
The city’s Office of Boards and Commissions recently began requiring all board members to undergo training on the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s open meetings and transparency law.
In addition, the boards are now required to post their agendas and meeting minutes online.
Applicants can now apply online, and background checks now are limited to the police oversight board.
The background investigations, which include credit checks, can’t be eliminated for the oversight board because members have access to sensitive city facilities.
In addition to those changes, City Council President Georgette Gómez is recommending some other new policies.
They include requiring that a council committee meet every two years in February to evaluate which boards should continue operating, whether any boards can be merged and whether any should be dissolved because of changing priorities.
Gómez also is proposing that boards be required to notify the city clerk immediately when there is a vacancy so efforts can begin to fill it, and that each board compile an annual report of their accomplishments to be posted online.
Those reports would include a summary of the board’s demographics based on members’ self-reported information about their ethnicity, age and income.
The need to report such information has encouraged greater diversity on boards in other cities with such a requirement, according to Gómez’s staff.
Two local progressive groups, the Mid-City Community Advocacy Network and the Center on Policy Initiatives, are lobbying for more significant changes.
The Mid-City CAN proposes that San Diego provide stipends to board members for their service, cover child care expenses and provide translators for residents who struggle with English.
The Center on Policy Initiatives wants the city to formally amend its rules to reflect that there are no background checks except when legally necessary, and that U.S. citizenship is not required to serve on a board.
While the city recently eliminated the background checks and only verifies residency, not citizenship, leaders of the two groups say they are concerned that future city leaders may change those policies if they aren’t formal rules.
Both groups say the city’s previous practice of requiring credit checks was discriminatory and deprived San Diego of input from a large chunk of residents who are affected by city policies.
They say many people get bad credit because of medical emergencies or unpaid student loans, contending that residents facing such struggles shouldn’t be denied a voice in shaping city policies.
The Mid-City CAN is also proposing the city reimburse members for transportation to meetings and set a maximum of two boards that any individual can serve on simultaneously.
The proposals, which the City Council’s Rules Committee endorsed , were forwarded to City Attorney Mara Elliott so she can draft formal regulations and policies.
The proposals would have to be approved by the full City Council to take effect.
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