The City of Del Mar historically has made good use of its talented citizenry by including them on their advisory committees and listening to their input. The longstanding Lagoon Committee, the Finance Committee, the Parks and Recreation Committee, the Traffic and Parking Committee, the Sustainability Advisory Committee and others have all contributed to important actions that have made Del Mar such a special place to live.
The COVID pandemic has fundamentally changed the way these advisory committees operate. Most committees stopped meeting due to budget constraints and staff shortages during the pandemic. Prior to 2020, most committees met monthly and set their own agendas with input from staff and council liaisons. Advice given to the city was based on the expertise of the committee members and the issues that they identified as the most pressing.
All that has changed as the committee meetings have restarted. Meetings are quarterly, with staff dictating the agenda. Committees are assigned workplans that originate from the city and the council liaisons. Limited staff time is often cited for the reason that committee priorities cannot be undertaken. Committee volunteers have been prohibited from working on projects within their area of expertise with the implicit assertion that all city policy must be generated by city staff.
This year, for the first time, the City Council set goals and priorities without first considering committee work plans. The sole exception was the decision to advance the Building Electrification Ordinance from Tier 3 (discretionary, if time available) to Tier 2 (should do within the year) after an impassioned plea from Councilmember Worden.
Is this top-down style of managing volunteer committees the best way to retain the expertise the city needs? This inversion of the historical role of the committees makes the tacit assumption that the City Councilmembers have more expertise in a wide variety of subjects than the committee members. We think this assumption is wrong, and it deprives the City of useful advice. Moreover, a lessened role for committee members will make it more difficult to recruit and retain the volunteers that can contribute the most to the future of our small city.