Some Salisbury Boards Struggling With Participation

SALISBURY — A few commissions in Salisbury have had trouble operating recently due to insufficient members or attendance, resulting in an inability to have a quorum, according to City Administrator John Pick.

While some on the council blamed new state-mandated ethics codes for the lack of interest from the public, others argued that the city has struggled to fill many of its boards and commissions for years and that new regulations are a minor factor.

“They’re so complicated,” said Councilwoman Laura Mitchell of the new ethics rules. “They’re complicated and they’re onerous. There’s so much that they have to do.”

According to Mitchell, the codes, which were adopted this year, “make people think twice” about offering to serve on any of the city’s numerous boards and commissions. The positions are entirely voluntary and often require late nights and sometimes extensive training. Tacking on the added pressure of disclosing all income, any relationships or gifts that could have any influence on a judgment, and having all of that information posted online can discourage already unappealing positions, according to Mitchell.

 “We have to do at the city level what they have to do at the state level, and I think that our jobs are very different,” Mitchell said. “The potential for abuse is there at all levels, but I think that it’s a lot more obvious at a local level than at a state level. The more bureaucracy you have the harder it is to spot.”

Council President Terry Cohen agreed that the new regulations “haven’t helped” Salisbury attract members of the public to appointed positions, but pointed out that the city has a long history of public disinterest in regards to serving.

“The city has had difficulty filling its boards, commissions and committees for a number of years, so it’s been a concern of mine since coming on the council in 2007,” she said. “I don’t have any hard data to explain why that is, but I think a number of possible factors are involved, some that are national and some that are local. “

One factor that Cohen blamed for the disinterest is declining public awareness of what the commissions do and how important they are to running the city. The recession has also played a role in discouraging involvement, she added, as has the sometimes hostile political environment in Salisbury and a general lack of training for members of boards and committees.

“We need more public education about what city boards and commissions do and more training for those who do participate to make them more comfortable in carrying out their duties,” she said. “That is why the council has taken some time and care in the last year-and-a-half with legislative changes on these issues and encouraged the administration to extend more educational outreach and training.  These are appointed public offices, which can be an intimidating prospect to many people, but if the government and the community provide good support, the experience can be a valuable one to all concerned.”

Cohen mentioned that the council might want to take a look at which, if any, of the commissions are redundant and could be cut or changed.

“Some of the commissions and committees we might want to re-evaluate if they should exist or exist in their current form,” Cohen said.

Mitchell admitted that Salisbury’s trouble filling boards has existed for years, but maintained that the new ethics codes have led to the city being unable to establish quorums at many commission meetings.

Ironically, Mitchell blames the new ethics code for scaring off members of Salisbury’s own Ethics Committee.

“Now our Ethics Committee has all but dissolved,” she said, adding that without the committee operating new ethics forms listing changes to the code can’t be approved.

There may be some relief on the horizon, however. The new ethics regulations are being discussed by municipalities across Maryland, according to Mitchell, and alterations at the state level may be in the cards if dissent is loud enough.

“There is legislation in again to make some changes about whether they apply to municipalities or not, and whether the information has to be posted on the Internet,” she said.

Whether or not something changes on that front, Cohen believes that Salisbury will continue to have trouble drumming up public interest until a concentrated effort is made to address frustrations with the administration, public awareness, and undertrained members. She also asserted that lack of citizen interest in government isn’t a concern exclusive to the city.

“I don’t think that it’s just Salisbury that has these problems. I think it’s a nationwide issue,” she said.

While Cohen and Mitchell both agreed that boards being unable to function in their intended capacity are a major wrench in the gears of city government, Cohen explained that the council has “a lot of competing priorities” for its attention and fixing the problem will probably be a long-term effort.