In theory, advisory boards assist the Manatee County Commission by providing opinions on major issues like affordable housing and child welfare in the county.
However, low attendance at board meetings and few applicants for openings has made Manatee county commissioners question the value of such advisory boards.
On one side is Commissioner George Kruse, who suggested Manatee County needs even more advisory boards. At the Jan. 9 commission meeting, he said it would be valuable to add advisory boards to address issues about waterways, rural districts and aid for people with disabilities. He received pushback from his fellow commissioners.
“My only concern is that we have some boards (now) that we’re having trouble filling,” Commission Chair Mike Rahn said. “We’re working, right now, on figuring out what boards that we (commissioners) are all on. We haven’t done anything in about five years with some of these boards or kept up with them.”
Each commissioner is assigned to an advisory board. Prior to the meeting, County Administrator Charlie Bishop had already assigned Chief of Staff Andy Butterfield to perform an audit on all 18 advisory boards.
When presented with 13 applications to fill seven seats during the Jan. 23 commission meeting, Kruse was on the losing side of a 6-1 vote that temporarily disbanded the Library Advisory Board. Five seats are new, and two terms are expiring, which leaves only two board members in place.
The motion made by Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge to not make any appointments and open up the application process again means the board can't convene in February as planned because it doesn't meet the requirement of a quorum, which is a majority of five members in this case.
“I don’t see many individuals on this list who are like-minded with this board,” Van Ostenbridge said by phone.
He wasn’t present at the meeting.
Before being "like-minded" was stated as one of Van Ostenbridge's requirements, Shannon Keever, communications director for Women's Voices for Southwest Florida spoke to commissioners at the Jan. 9 meeting.
"I think I can speak for the majority of Manatee County citizens in saying that we don't feel heard by you," Keever said. "So I can imagine that people aren't jumping to put in a ton of volunteer time if they're feeling like they're coming up against a board that's just going to ignore them."
Two applicants are current board members who reapplied for their seats on the Library Advisory Board and have attendance records of 92% and 98%. Among the new applicants are retired librarians, teachers, an attorney and the co-founder of a high school.
Library Services Manager Tammy Parrott said it was the "most robust" applicant pool she's seen since working for the county. She was hired over four years ago.
Sue Ann Miller, the president of the Friends of the Lakewood Ranch Library, sent an email to commissioners following the meeting that asked for disclosure on the definition of “like-minded" and noted that if it has anything to do with party affiliation or being a member of a certain organization, then that's discrimination.
Rahn said choosing not to appoint new members to the Library Advisory Board was not discriminatory because it was only a reflection of the quantity of applications, not the quality of the applicants. He said most applicants were retirees, which doesn't offer a broad enough cross section of the community.
Rahn wants more younger parents to apply because he and fellow commissioners are on the conservative side of parental controls that only allow children access to age-appropriate books.
"I'm 62 years old. I don't know what kids are reading now," he said. "We invest a lot of money into the library system. We want to pick the best people."
Rahn said the vacancies will be advertised for another 30 days, and appointments will be made thereafter.
Sitting on an advisory board is a volunteer position, but it’s also a regular commitment.
Low attendance is an issue Housing Development Coordinator Rowena Young-Gopie runs into with the Affordable Housing Advisory Board.
“Their feet aren’t held to the fire,” she said. “We have this huge board with 11 members, but half the time, we don’t have all the members and there’s no reason behind why they weren’t there.”
Young-Gopie worked for the City of Sarasota and oversaw the Newtown Redevelopment Agency Advisory Board. If a member missed 25% of the meetings, they received a letter from the clerk, had to submit a reason as to why and the board had to excuse the absence.
The time commitment depends on the board. Some boards meet on a quarterly basis while others meet weekly.
District 5 Commissioner Ray Turner was on the Planning Commission before taking over for Vanessa Baugh Aug. 1.
“It was one day a week for the (Planning Commission) meeting, but it was having an understanding of land use and the legal implications," Turner said. "If you’re recommending something to the commissioners, you can’t recommend something that puts them or the county in trouble. It’s understanding the limitations of power of commissioners, which was a good lesson for me coming into this seat.”
If a complicated project was on the agenda, it could take Turner an extra day's work to sift through all the information.
The terms vary as to how long each member must serve. The county is currently advertising four seats on the Citizens Oversight Committee for Infrastructure Sales Tax Advisory Board. Terms start at either two or three years with two-year terms thereafter.
Do citizens get a say?
When the commission decided to cancel the county’s American Library Association membership, the Library Advisory Board wasn’t asked for its opinion. When thousands of citizens signed a petition asking commissioners not to reduce wetland buffers, the Planning Commission voted the motion down, but commissioners passed it anyway.
“We don’t have to listen to everything they say, but they make some valid points and sometimes projects change as a result of their comments before they get to us,” Kruse said. “We need to better utilize the boards. If we listen to members and give them a voice, more people would want to be on them.”
He noted the Environmental Lands Management and Acquisitions Committee as one of the boards that is being utilized properly.Over the past two years, it’s been expanded from nine to 17 members. Over the past six months, it’s been given spending power.
Initially, members couldn’t ask for an appraisal on a property without the commission’s approval. Now, the advisory board decides if a property is worth being appraised and investigated.
However, Carol Felts, an ELMAC member and candidate for Commissioner James Satcher’s seat, said ELMAC is mainly staff run. Members can’t see the financials of the program and often join with special interests in mind.
“You may be filling the seat of, let’s say, a horticultural interest, but you’re a real estate agent who just happens to like plants,” Felts said.“The county is not reaching out to fill these positions. They are holding them for preferred appointments from the commissioners.”
One point in Miller's email told commissioners that she expects them to follow the approved process (of filling advisory board seats) and to not add their friends to the applicant pool.
The requirements for the Affordable Housing Advisory Board list all the varying positions Young-Gopie said were needed to provide a different mix on the board — those with financial backgrounds, realtors, and developers — yet she described the board as “not very diverse.”
“Everyone has an agenda as to why they’re on the board and why they want to recommend things because they recommend things that would benefit their development and their purpose,” she said. “That’s what we need to get away from. It needs to benefit the entire community.”
According to Rahn, there’s not always a way around that because board members need specialized knowledge.
“You want people who understand land use on the Planning Commission,” he said.
Glen Gibellina served three terms on the Affordable Housing board over the past 10 years. He’s an affordable housing advocate who built a hurricane and sound proof home in Bradenton out of shipping containers. He called the boards inefficient.
“Advisory boards are like RINOs, recognition in name only,” Gibellina said. “They just ignored me. I got tired. If you’re not going to listen or implement any of the best practices out there other than kissing the (expletive) of developers, then I don’t need to be here.”
Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.