Nine people showed up at Southwest Regional Library on Aug. 3, hoping to provide input to Fort Worth’s Library Advisory Board; they were unsuccessful.
Residents hoped to comment on the sale of Fort Worth’s central library and changes to the mayor’s summer reading challenge. However, the would-be commenters outnumbered the board members by three to one. The meeting was canceled for lack of a quorum. Speakers were encouraged to sign up for the next meeting while the library staff stayed to listen to their concerns.
“I respectfully suggest that the library board members you appointed are not adequately fulfilling their assigned role,” Reed Bilz, who showed up to the Aug. 3 meeting, said at an Aug. 15 City Council meeting.
Aug. 3 was not the first time an advisory board or commission meeting was canceled at the last minute for low attendance. The Library Advisory Board meets quarterly. Out of the board’s four scheduled meetings this year, half have been canceled for lack of the minimum number of members needed to conduct business in a group. As a result, the board will not be able to formally provide input on the city’s proposed library budget before it’s approved in September.
The city is not sure how many times a board or commission didn’t meet because it lacked quorum. However, new rules passed by the Fort Worth City Council on Aug. 8 will give the city secretary the authority to begin tracking absences and meeting cancellations, Jannette Goodall, Fort Worth’s city secretary, said.
Now, the city secretary will be charged with monitoring and tracking the effectiveness of boards and commissions. The purpose and authority of the city’s 40 boards and commissions varies, but generally, they exist to provide the mayor and City Council with quality feedback on city services and programs, Goodall said.
“The new policies really are the starting point for formalizing a board and commission program for the city,” Goodall said. “It provides the city secretary’s office with direction and authority to establish a training program and streamline attendance requirements and reporting.”
Missing from the new policies is a method to discipline commission members who violate rules of decorum, act outside the board’s scope, file a lawsuit against the city or have an unresolved conflict of interest. City Council members voted to strike a formal method for removing a board or commission member when they approved the new policy on Aug. 8.
City staff is working on revisions to the discipline policies and will come back to council with an updated policy later, council member Elizabeth Beck said in a statement.
Boards and commissions are governed by city code. Oversight of the groups was previously “pretty informal,” Goodall said. This year, the city secretary’s office received a position in its budget dedicated to providing additional support and assistance to the boards and commissions.
That new staff member also is responsible for creating training materials meant to improve the effectiveness of boards and commissions. Bilz, who previously served on the Library Advisory Board, said improvements are sorely needed.
“During the time I served on the board, we lobbied for more staff, more days and hours, more resources for the library system as a whole,” Bilz told council members. “Review the role of board members stated above, and decide whether or not the people you appointed to the Library Board are meeting their obligations.”
The report reached out to the current Library Advisory Board president but did not hear by the time of publication. Library Advisory Board members have been big supporters of the library system, attending events and promoting library programs in their communities, Theresa Davis, a spokesperson for the library department, said.
“The library is looking forward to working with each board member this year to share information and identify opportunities to expand access to services,” Davis said.
The role of boards and commissions in Fort Worth
Fort Worth’s boards and commissions advise the City Council on certain issues and some, including the city plan and zoning commission, serve designated functions. Most boards and commission members are appointed by city council members by district and serve as volunteers with no compensation for their time.
Some boards have more unilateral powers than others, including the commercial and residential boards of adjustment. Those 11 board members have the power to determine if there is an error in any requirement, decision, or determination made by a building official in the enforcement of ordinances and create a public hearing to reverse that decision.
Other boards have little to no unilateral power and simply advise the City Council on issues related to the board’s area of expertise. For example, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board has the authority only to present policy recommendations and information to the city manager and council. Neither the city manager nor City Council is obligated to acknowledge or respond to the board’s recommendations.
The new rules passed by the City Council in August formalize a process for nominating new members to the 11 boards and commissions made up of residents appointed by every member of the council. The rules also create an attendance policy, a mechanism for tracking attendance and a policy for presenting that information to city council.
11 boards and commissions have a new, formalized nomination process
- Aviation Advisory Board
- Board of Adjustment
- Building Standards Commission
- Community Development Council
- Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission
- Library Advisory Board
- Park and Recreation Advisory Board
- Plan Commission
- Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Commission
- Urban Design Commission
- Zoning Commission
City council voted to remove a section of the ordinance before approving the new policy. Section seven would have created a method for removing members that included several preliminary steps such as training and a formal written reprimand.
Beck’s motion was approved unanimously.
“Overall, staff did great work in updating our policies to fit the needs of our newly larger council, however, I felt that the discipline and removal section of the policies was overly vague in that version and needed to be further clarified,” Beck said in a statement.
Council will still be able to request to remove or replace a board or commission member before their term is over, Goodall said. Any issue raised to the city secretary’s office about a board or commission member will be passed on to the City Council member who appointed that member.
The removal of a board or commission member has caused controversy before, when the City Council voted to remove Mike Steele from the Human Relations Commission in 2019 for being hostile to the mission of the commission, which includes eliminating discrimination and prejudice from the city. Betsy Price was mayor at the time. Valarie Martinez-Ebers, a political science professor at the University of North Texas, studied the efficacy of Human Relations Commissions across the country in 2019. She included Fort Worth in her analysis.
She found that the structure and oversight of Fort Worth’s Human Relations Commission made the appointed body ineffective, an issue that likely extends to the city’s other similarly structured boards and commissions, she said. Several meetings of the Human Relations Commission also have been canceled this year for lack of quorum.
“They don’t have the authority to do anything,” Martinez-Ebers said. “In fact, they write reports and, half the time, they never even get past the mayor’s desk … So it was pretty frustrating for the residents who did try to attend meetings and testify and share their concerns because there were no results. There was no response.”
Martinez-Ebers published a book outlining her findings on the efficacy and impact of human relations commissions. She found that Fort Worth had one of the weakest human relations commissions. The body’s inability to create policies and change related to inequality had the potential to deepen divisions and erode trust between the city and its residents.
“When the community residents are consulted, and they have the opportunity to testify to a board, it makes them feel better … but it actually doesn’t increase trust in the government unless that board has the authority to act and something gets done,” Martinez-Ebers said.
In the aftermath of divisive or traumatic events, cities with a reliable forum for the public to express grievances and witness action being taken on behalf of residents were able to turn down the temperature of conflict and perhaps prevent further violence, Martinez Ebers found.
Fort Worth is missing out on the benefits of a robust and empowered Human Relations Commission, she said.
Often, it’s city leadership that makes the decision to value the work of the board and commissions and implement their guidance into city policy. If the leadership values the work of the boards and commissions, the people they appoint typically reflect that enthusiasm with commitment and hard work, Martinez-Ebers said.
“Leadership at the top sets the tone. Of course, some cities are very resistant to change. … If that’s the kind of city that you’re functioning in, it’s really hard for the boards to make big changes, because nobody wants to hear it,” Martinez-Ebers said.
The new rules for board and commissions went into effect Aug. 8. Current board members will receive training on issues such as Texas Open Meeting Act requirements and running effective meetings, Goodall said.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.