Sorensen’s big idea

New council member wants to shake up city boards and commissions

Chico Councilman-elect Mark Sorensen is eager to kick off his term in a major way: by convincing his fellow council members to change the system for selecting the members of the city’s five boards and commissions, something they do every two years, following council elections, and will do again about a month after he takes office on Dec. 7.

It’s one of the most important processes the council goes through, since the boards and commissions are such a significant part of city governance. That’s especially true of the Planning Commission, which has tremendous influence on the way Chico develops.

The current system isn’t working, Sorensen says, which is one of the reasons why, as of last Thursday (Nov. 18), only 11 people had applied for the 20 open positions. (By Monday, Nov. 22, however, the number of applicants had gone up to 36.)

For another thing, the candidates are required to attend a special meeting of the council, where they are expected to go to the lectern and sell themselves, not an especially pleasant experience.

Then the council members talk about the candidates in general terms. This is an awkward moment. They can’t say anything specific (such as, “He’s a motor-mouth with nothing to say”), so they can’t argue the qualifications of some candidates over others.

Then they vote, again awkwardly, going through several rounds of raising their hands for the candidates they support for each board or commission until all but the winners are eliminated.

It’s a humiliating process, especially for the “losers,” who are subjected to what feels like being vetted for a junior-high sports team by coaches who have no idea who’s good and who’s not—and then being rejected while the rest of the school looks on.

Sorensen, who went through the process himself two years ago to become a planning commissioner, wants to ditch that system in favor of allowing each council member to select a single member of each commission. “As a council member I could do a lot more in terms of recruitment with a more favorable and certain appointment process,” he writes in an e-mail message.

He also thinks it would be helpful “to have periodic conversations … and share ideas, information and philosophy” with the people he’s appointed. He believes the quality of the appointments would be higher and that the commissions would be less polarized.

Sorensen’s proposal is a worthwhile effort to improve city government. The council would be wise to consider it and, if it passes muster, implement it right away, thereby sparing candidates another unpleasant selection process.