San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

June 13th, 2010
Letter to the editor: Is a neighborhood commission really necessary?

To the editor:

When trying to decide whether to create a new bureaucracy, we need to carefully consider the best and worst possible outcomes, especially if the proposal would create a permanent new apparatus, as the proposed “neighborhood commission” would. Far too often in the face of reactionary anger or crisis, we respond by creating new agencies, new bureaucracies, new committees, adding more weight to the problem without actually solving anything.

The goal of the proposed neighborhood commission would be “addressing the concerns of various neighborhoods” within San Marcos. The current proposal recommends dividing up 11 of the seats into the sectors under the Horizons Master Plan, which is now 14 years old. The sectoring plan, in addition to clumping and dividing neighborhoods, leaves eastern San Marcos poorly represented. While a stopgap measure of doubling the number of seats east of Interstate-35 (from two to four) has been added (and may draw ire from other parts of San Marcos, who will see their clout diminished), the commission will most certainly need to be partially revised as soon as the 2010 Census data is available in April. In addition, two seats will be given to Texas State University by way of Student Affairs and Associated Student Government (ASG). While I appreciate the plan to give students a voice, there are accountability concerns that will need to be addressed.

The best case scenario with the neighborhood commission is that it creates a forum for citizens to raise long-term concerns over the future of their neighborhood, and have that passed along to the city council with meaning and force. The neighborhood commission should have integrity and be open and available to all citizens with concerns or suggestions. While the commission will be mostly appointed by members of the city council, it should not be a rubber stamp for anyone’s agenda and should not begin meetings with pre-desired outcomes. While I hope this vision may one day come true, I fear it is nothing more than a pipe dream.

The more likely case will be that the proposed commission will fail in a number of ways. There are already legitimate concerns that such a commission will have quorum issues, and that the commission could sunset as a result. The board could be formed with little direction and no legitimacy, so that even if there are regular meetings, few will waste their time with a commission that has no respect or political clout and the board will fall defunct due to lack of interest. By far the worst possible outcome is that the board will become nothing more than a rubber stamp, giving councilmembers political cover to support “Buie Tract style” developments in the future by allowing them to reference the commission as “proof that the neighborhoods support the project.” Alternatively, the board could be used to push aside important issues the council doesn’t want to address by having them remanded to the neighborhood commission, where they could sit in limbo for months, possibly forever.

While San Marcos continues to grow, we are nowhere near the point where community activism places too heavy of a burden upon city leaders (at least no more than they signed up for when they first filed for office). Placing another wall between the citizens and the city council is neither necessary nor desired. At best, the proposed neighborhood commission will do little more than what is already being done by groups like the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA). At worst, it will become a political tool of the ruling bloc on the council, a commission with no real power whose name is only trumpeted when it serves a particular agenda. I urge members of the San Marcos City Council not to create a neighborhood commission. Instead, work with non-governmental groups that already exist, and work on a personal level to restore trust in our local government and local leaders, not just pass the buck to another committee. We the People didn’t elect you just to sit at the dais and spend money.

Griffin Spell
Political Science Senior
Texas State

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12 thoughts on “Letter to the editor: Is a neighborhood commission really necessary?

  1. Thank you, Griffin for your well thought out letter. The proposed neighborhood commission is starting out in a state of confusion in setting it up as it went from 11 to 13 members. San Marcos DOES need a neighborhood voice in the Council. A lot of neighborhoods are now in turmoil over decisions being made by the Council and they need to band together for a strong voice for the sake of our neighborhoods.

    The only way I see that the commission would work is if the neighborhoods elected their own representatives to sit on this commission. And, to make it a working commission, the Council would have to make it a part of the agenda for council meetings, possibly on a monthly basis. But, what is being proposed is already in place, CONA and it would seem that both are not needed in a city this size. By having both the Commission and CONA, it is adding more levels and more bureaucracy. Will the Council decide that all neighborhood concerns go through this “clearing house” commission, thus, slowing down decisions/actions? This will not stop citizens from addressing the Council directly, but will all their concerns then be turned over to the commission for further discussion? Finally, I agree with Griffin regarding the size of this commission. Thirteen folks in a meeting will always have problems coming to a final decision without compromise. Some compromise is to be expected, but will all the concerns of neighborhoods become too watered down by this process.

  2. Well said and well thought out. I agree that the only way this would work is for the neighborhoods to elect their own members. CONA definately does NOT represent all neighborhoods.

  3. Good point Griffin. Do we really need “blue ribbon” commissions to give our elected leaders cover to make unpopular decisions?

  4. Mr. Spell: Home run. You set an example for others of thorough critical thinking and outcomes analysis. Both of you have well-described the sustainability requirements for a functional citizens’ commission. You are also spot on in describing how an advisory group or “task force” can become either a token or a crass political tool for clearing the Council’s personal agendas and avoiding responsibility for unpopular or just plain smelly policy making. To avoid that, every credible neighborhood association or “block group” must have equal access to the agenda, lest some areas are favored over others–sadly, a long part of the history of San Marcos.

    The leaders generated from such activist groups can be determinative not only for screening and making coherent recommendations to the sitting Council, but tend to be able to serve exceptionally on the Council itself. They are able to “hit the ground running,” owing to the knowledge and process of how a City really works. They usually look to the whole citizenry as their responsibility. They can hardly afford to bring trivial or cockamamie ideas to the dais, and they assure that if such an item happens to slip through, it will be dealt with by the members, by the vote of the Board.

    In the meanwhile, unless such cooperation does not show to bring results, the result is a determined but dispirited few who take up the cannons, but lack new ammunition. The Council must believe such citizen groups have energy and clout, which the elected officials can confer or withhold. This not to say the proposed “spokes group for everybody’s issues” should or can drive the Council’s agenda, but it should have major standing and credibility and sincerity of commitment to making this a better town for those who actually own it and sometimes suffer with it.

    Some will be old enough to know I am describing CONA in an earlier manifestation. Much more of the Buie business, and we’ll likely get a replay. Less of it (a dream), and we should be able to use the tight link between the “proposed commission” and the Planning staff, Executive Level, to help make and realize planning improvements
    that already have substantial support. Fewer paid consultants–people who travel fifty miles to read your watch and tell you the time, in large part–as well. And more efficiency and better accuracy for the Council.

  5. Yes, there is certainly room for better representation of more neighborhoods, but surely not by having our city government appointing and very likely controlling the agendas of neighborhood groups, especially when there is such an existing bloc on council that subverts the Horizon Plan, once touted as a way to more balanced and positive growth, whenever it seems expeditious or just more convenient.

    Why, the ordinance even expressly allows for the university to choose its own representatives while active, tax-paying resident neighborhoods are disenfranchised and by-stepped. Is there an opportunity here for abuse of power? It’s beginning to be easier to recognize it as we behold it in action.

  6. I agree Griffin.

    There will be some seats opening up on City Council this November.

    Are you busy?

  7. I have been a member of CONA for several years, & CONA has always been open to all neighborhoods & the public at large. In the past before this current administration we have had a good working relationship with the city & have had the City staff & Elected officials represented at all of our meetings. The city administration has withdrawn from CONA not CONA withdrawing from the city. CONA has represented the concerns of the neighborhoods at the CIty Council meeting & because those concerns have been in conflict with what this current administration has wanted to do, it has decided to set up a Neighborhood Commission to rubbger stamp what the Administration wants to do. This unfortunately is where our Public office holders are going more & more these days. They consider the public to unintellegent to make decision & they feel they have been elected to take care of us regardless of what we want. Power is a very corruptable thing. I hope we can go back to the Council of Neighborhoods representing the neighborhoods as they have done for over 30 years, & politicians who realize they are elected by the populace to represent them not to make decisions for them.

  8. now, will any one from the City Council listen to any of these very important and logical reasons NOT to set up this up group?

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  10. Yesterday, I applied to volunteer for the Neighborhood Commission. While I still have many of the concerns I raised in this letter, while the commission exists we should make the best of it.

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