No new life for Visalia’s environmental, disability committees

Despite the pleas of residents, experts and committee members, the Visalia City Council opted not to reconsider a decision to eliminate its citizen-staffed Disability Advocacy and Environmental committees.

Refusing to Rethink

To underscore its decision, three of the four council members present at the June 7 meeting ended the debate by passing a resolution rejecting a request to place on a future agenda discussion of alternatives to eliminating the two committees. Greg Collins–the council member who had asked his fellow councilmen to reconsider their decision–cast the lone no vote.

Collins was hoping to undo a mistake he made during the council’s previous discussion on the future of the pair of committees.

“I had concerns when we took this action,” he said. “I may have gone brain dead that evening because I voted for it.”

His reasons were both philosophical–with more involvement leading to better democracy–and practical, with goals of expanding work the committees could do.

“First, I feel the more citizens are participating in their community, the closer they are the better they develop,” Collins said. “I think these two committees can take on a number of tasks.”

Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

The effort by those who came to address the council seemed doomed from the outset. Before anyone on the council or from the public gave an opinion, outgoing City Manager Randy Groom–who described himself as a “short-timer” who could speak with a free voice–reminded those present the council held all the cards and the body had already weighed in.

“The committees and commissions serve at the pleasure of the council. They’re selected by the council,” Groom said. “I just want to caution you as you plead with the council to remember it’s completely the council’s decision, and they’ve made their decision.”

What the council decided previously was to dissolve the Disability Advocacy and Environmental committees while creating four new positions on the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC). The four new seats on the CAC will be filled by two individuals concerned with environmental issues and two individuals concerned with issues facing the disabled.

While it has been implied the new committee members would be selected from the membership of the now defunct committees, the wording of the resolution passed by the council does not apparently specify it. It instead calls for two “environmentally-minded” members, but doesn’t list specific qualifications. The new members will be appointed at the end of the fiscal year.

Change for Change’s Sake

Councilman Brian Poochigian says the elimination of the committees resulted from a dissatisfaction on leadership’s part with the way the committees operated. Eliminating committees and increasing membership on the CAC actually empowers citizens who participate on them, while decreasing the total number of citizen volunteers working with the city and the council.

“I don’t think the council was happy with the way these committees were set up,” Poochigian said. “I think the members of the Environmental Committee have more power on the CAC. I think we created a super committee here.”

While the CAC has a wider scope of concern, the council has promised its future agendas will contain items about issues usually addressed by the pair of committees that are being terminated. Poochigian also said change was needed, though he did not say why.

“Once you don’t change you become stagnant,” he said.

Mayor Steve Nelsen said committee members were consulted prior to the decision to eliminate, and their concerns were part of the reason for the change in structure.

“We heard the council wasn’t involved,” Nelsen said. “We heard there was a lack of funds.”

The CAC has been granted a $10,000 annual budget.

Don’t fix It if it’s not broken

Environmental Committee Chairwoman Maile Malkonian told the Valley Voice previously that she believes Nelsen was behind the effort to reduce the number of committees, a charge he denied during the June 7 city council meeting.

“I totally disagree with you,” Nelsen said. “That’s not how I conduct business.”

He did not respond to a request for further comment.

Nelsen pleaded with detractors to give the new scheme a fair shake.

“Give it a chance. Change is difficult. If we realize we need to tweak it, we come together as a council and tweak it,” he said. “When individuals are close-minded, how do we make changes?”

Gene Young, a resident of Ivanhoe who works in Visalia, told the council there didn’t seem to be any reason to uproot the established committees and questioned the need for change.

“I normally like consolidation and embrace change,” he said. “I would say that if you wanted to eliminate the committee, you’d do it on the basis of being irrelevant or ineffective.”

Loss of Talent on Committees

Young also expressed worry the elimination of committees was shutting out not just willing volunteers, but also experts who are willing to lend the city their experience. The CAC, he said, will be too general in nature and could end up serving no one.

“You would never want to be guilty of discouraging people who are willing and qualified,” he said.

Visalian Carol Greene also questioned why the committees were being eliminated.

“Change is only good if there’s a reason for it,” she said. “What are your standards? Is there some kind of perceived fault?”

Daniel Garcia–a University of California certified master gardener, environmentally-based business owner and resident of Visalia–feels the committees are well suited to the tasks they’ve been appointed and should be allowed to continue.

“These committees are built of specialists,” he said. “Let these specialists do what they do best.”

Kathy Falconer, a former member of the Environmental Committee following its final meeting on June 9, echoed this sentiment.

“There are decades of people volunteering on the Environmental Committee,” she said. “Sometimes we’re not heard.”

Council Moved Too Quickly

Those addressing the council were seeking another formal discussion of committee structure, perhaps with an eye to preserving current committees while also expanding the CAC. The change, some felt, came too quickly. Dale Simmons, a Visalia resident, said more thought and discussion on the issue were needed.

“This decision to eliminate the Environmental Committee was rushed,” she said.

Visalian Gary Gray voiced a desire to see the continuation of the two committees as well as restoration of the North Visalia Committee. Restoration of the North Visalia Committee would increase grant awards for development of the disadvantaged area of the city. Gray also said the elimination of committees seems to be directed at Councilman Collins as a reaction to his interests.

“It looks like to me like you’re attacking the north Visalia area of Greg Collins,” Gray said. “He’s always been supportive of the environment, and you’re taking down the Environmental Committee and the Waterways Committee.”

The city’s Waterways and Trails Committee had been eliminated by a previous decision of the council.

No More Talk

In response to these concerns Mayor Nelsen again asserted a reduced number of committees would make those who volunteer on them more effective in their work.

“It gives you a stronger voice,” he said.

As the discussion came to a close, Collins moved to allow the Environmental and Disability Advocacy committee to continue meeting while adding members from them to the CAC.

“More involvement makes for a better community,” he said.

That motion died for lack of a second.

Councilman Brett Taylor, who had been central to the plan to restructure the committees, then moved to specifically reject Collins’ notion to allow the two outgoing committees to continue their work. That motion passed 3-1.

Councilman Phil Cox was not in attendance at the meeting.

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