Visalia’s environmental, disability advocacy committees get the ax

Visalia City Council voted May 3 to eliminate the city’s Disability Advocacy and Environmental committees. Now soon-to-be former volunteers–as well as at least one city councilman–are concerned about declining citizen participation.

Citizen Voices Silenced

The move marks a continuation of the Visalia council’s ongoing efforts to reduce the number of committees and the number of citizen volunteers who staff them. Earlier, the council voted to eliminate the Waterways and Trails Committee and the North Visalia Neighborhood Advisory Committee dedicated to reducing crime and cleaning up north Visalia.

The city council as well reduced membership on some remaining committees from nine to seven members. Following the decision last week to end two more committees at the close of the fiscal year next month, the city will have just three remaining committees, the Building Advisory Committee, the Historic Preservation Committee and the Citizens Advisory Committee.

Those who serve on the committees scheduled for cancellation, however, say the move is making the city’s government less accessible to the citizens it serves.

“One of the things I was very proud of Visalia for was its citizens committees that allow its citizens to participate in civic government,” said Maile Malkonian, chair of the Environmental Committee. “That opportunity is being diminished.”

State-mandated committees, such as Parks and Recreation and the Planning Commission, will continue their work without interruption or change.


‘Super-Powered Committee’

The decision to restructure the council’s committees came after what Councilman Brett Taylor described as a “comprehensive” review of all the city’s standing committees, which did an assessment of who attended the meetings and what the committees do.

The evaluation, Taylor said, led to the conclusion the city could be better served by eliminating these committees and adding two of the members from each of them to the membership of the more general Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC).

“Really, what we decided to do is give the Citizens Advisory Committee more power,” Taylor said. “We felt like they weren’t doing the job of advising the council.”

In addition to expanding the CAC’s membership, the council also voted to give the body an annual budget of $10,000 to support its projects.

“We wanted to make a super-powered committee,” Taylor said. “That’s why we gave them the funding.”

Good Intentions, Wrong Results

Malkonian, however, says the budget allocation for the CAC is just a payoff, a way to ameliorate backlash from those who oppose the reduction.

“I think they’re doing this to sweeten the bitterness,” she said.

Malkonian said the concerted effort to reduce and eliminate committees seems sinister, as if the goal were to weaken the public voice in city government.

“Those two were axed and the rest were shrunk,” she said. “Now, they’re getting rid of two more.”

Malkonian said she believes the city’s mayor is behind the effort, and the intent is to make the council’s work more streamlined.

“I think Steve Nelson is the main driver,” she said. “If you ask him, he’ll tell you we’re enhancing it; ‘improving’ it was his actual word.”

Nelson recently underwent surgery to remove his appendix and was unavailable for comment.

Decision Reversible

Taylor said ending the disabilities and environmental committees is actually intended to give advocates a “bigger, more powerful voice” by adding two members from each of those committees to the larger CAC. Accessibility and environmental concerns are universal, Taylor said, and they should be addressed in a more central way.

“Those pop up in every aspect of your life,” he said. “We felt if we put them together we’d get a better product.”

This isn’t the first time the city has combined committees. When the Waterways and Trails Committee was disbanded, some members were moved onto the Parks and Rec Committee. That experiment has worked, prompting the more recent consolidation. If the experiment doesn’t perform as intended, the move can be undone, Taylor said.

“If this fails and blows up in our face, we can always go back to the way it was,” he said.

Richard Garcia, a one-time member of the Waterways and Trails Committee, says the move to eliminate that group was also a mistake.

“I thought it was a bad decision to disband the city’s Waterways and Trails Committee,” he said in a letter to the council following the May 3 decision. “That group was instrumental in protecting our St. John’s River and the city’s many creeks and canals.”

Bad Timing, Bad Look

The primary work of the Environmental Committee has been largely educational, with the committee sponsoring events and programs–such as the city’s annual Earth Day celebration– intended to create an awareness of environmental concerns and issues. But, the committee was also practical, sponsoring environmental awards and programs, including the city’s battery recycling collection system that so far has removed 30 tons of batteries from the waste stream.

That work could be lost if the Environmental Committee disbands.

“That’s our main concern,” said Malkonian. “We were assured our projects would not disappear, but it would be up to the CAC to carry them forward.”

Malkonian worries specific concerns about the environment or accessibility from individuals will be lost in the larger membership of the CAC. Taylor said the members of former committees are welcome to continue the work their boards began.

“They can work on projects,” he said. “We absolutely hope they will continue the work they’ve started.”

The Environmental Committee has also had a key voice in past decisions by the council, including changing the city’s waste collection scheme to reduce fuel usage and increase usability, and streamlining the city’s drought response.

“When they have a question, they can ask us about it, or when staff wants to get our feedback before a decision they can come to us,” Malkonian said.

She is also concerned about what message is sent by the elimination of the city’s Environmental Committee.

“I’m also afraid the optics are very bad,” Malkonian said. “Just when climate change is ramping up, the city of Visalia is eliminating it’s environmental committee.”

Collins Opposed Committee Shrinkage

The lone voice of dissent on the council was that of Greg Collins, who believes not only is getting rid of the committees a mistake, but that the reasoning behind the decision is faulty.

“I was challenging the other council members about why they were doing it,” he said of the discussion that preceded the vote. “They countered with, ‘Well, they’ll have more power.’ That’s not true.”

The vote to disband the two committees was originally going to be made without discussion as part of the council’s “consent calendar,” a list of procedural items usually passed without comment or debate. Collins pulled the item to talk about it before making a decision. Due to a procedural error on his part, Collins voted to disband. He hopes to undo that mistake, especially in light of the public backlash the decision prompted.

“I did disagree, but for the record I did vote for it,” he explained. “Subsequently, on Monday night, I asked the staff to put it on the agenda for reconsideration for a number of reasons.”

The council will revisit the issue at its June 7 meeting, and the public will be allowed to give its opinion. Collins hopes the council will follow his lead and reverse itself.

“I tell you my vote will be to reconsider,” he said. “I think we shot ourselves in the foot by limiting public involvement.”

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