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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Government reform a pipe dream, ALCOSAN appointment shows

Posted By on Thu, May 27, 2010 at 10:19 AM

I'm a little late with the news that the mayor has appointed his brother, state Rep.-elect Adam Ravenstahl, to the Alcosan board. And others have already hashed out the question of whether such an appointment violates a city ethics rule barring the appointment of relatives. I'd just like to point out that this is the latest example of a long-standing, and largely unchallenged, practice by Ravenstahl: taking advantage of board members serving expired terms. 

Whether Brother Ravenstahl should be appointed to fill the Alcosan vacancy is one question. But another is why the vacancy existed in the first place. It existed because the guy Ravenstahl replaced, Dan Keller, has been serving on an expired term since last December.

As we've written repeatedly, the members of city boards and commissions are allowed to continue serving on boards even after their terms expire ... until the mayor either moves to renominate them, or to replace them with someone else.

So this is legal. But serving on an expired term is like living on borrowed time: You can be replaced at any moment. And that makes a mockery of the whole reason for HAVING appointees in the first place.

Appointees get fixed terms, after all, to reduce their susceptibility to political pressure. It's supposed to give them some breathing room for making tough decisions. It's also supposed to insulate them a bit from the rapid ups-and-downs of the political process. Obviously, that didn't happen here: Keller was running against Adam Ravenstahl in the state Rep. race, and was tossed out from his position practically the moment the ballots were counted. 

It occurred to me yesterday that there would be an easy way to stop this. The city could change the code with language that said something like this:

When an appointee's term expires, the mayor will have 30 days to either renominate or replace  the appointee. If the 30 days elapses with no action on the part of the mayor, the appointee shall be given another full term.

Optionally, the code could be changed in the opposite direction: If 30 days elapses, the appointee shall be automatically removed from the board. That would force the mayor to actually take an affirmative step of choosing a replacement, rather than this passive-aggressive approach of bringing existing board members under his thumb. 

I suggested this idea to City Councilor Bill Peduto, who has proposed a few reforms in his day. Peduto thought it was a good, workable idea -- and that it would make absolutely no difference at all. 

"If you have somebody who doesn't follow the rules," he said, "will adding more rules change anything?

"We could create that rule, but what happens when they disregard that one too?" he asked. "Or they come up with some half-ass legal interpretation. Then you have a debate about that instead, and you get off the subject."

He points to the Alcosan appointment as an example: While the ethics language seems clear, the city solicitor is arguing that it doesn't apply, in part because legally speaking, Alcosan is a standalone entity. 

"So now I have to argue that the mayor has jurisdiction over Alcosan, because he has the ability to appoint members and withdraw them," Peduto says. And passing my proposed change might look good on paper, but would do nothing to prevent a similarly bogged-down argument in the future.  "How much time should we waste trying to be baby sitters?"

So what is the solution? It lies with the voters, Peduto says. 

"People get the government they elect, and this is what they wanted."

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