In a working session on Tuesday, Feb. 16, the Bedford Town Board took up a request from the town’s Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Advisory Committee, asking that the board adopt a new policy regarding the process for appointing members to committees and commissions.
In its rationale for a new policy, IDEAC said that the town code currently does not have specific language detailing the process by which members of the community are selected and maintained in their positions on town boards, commissions or committees. Further, it also stated a lack of uniformity in how these groups manage their memberships.
Town board member Stephanie McCaine said that, having been recently appointed to the board, she was aware that the process could appear unclear to members of the public. She noted that after her appointment in early January, the board received some feedback that the appointment process could have been more transparent; at the same time, it also heard from residents who were excited that the unique perspective that Ms. McCaine, who is Black and a local school administer focusing on diversity and inclusion, would bring to the board.
“In an effort to align those two things — the wishes of our community to have a more inclusive and open process — we’re going to discuss how we might approach filling vacancies going forward,” she said. A goal of the improvements would be to develop “a system that allows and fosters greater participation by more people from our community.”
Town board member Bobbi Bittker said this discussion had begun about a year ago, pre-COVID, when she and fellow board member Ellen Calves had been speaking to community members, encouraging them to get involved with town committees. “They just gave that blank look, like, ‘We really don’t know how to get involved.’” Ms. Bittker said the comments made the officials realize that residents needed more information on how appointments are made and what each entails. Town officials had a work session to review the pages on the Bedford website for each committee and found very little information about when terms expired, what the committees did, or what the qualifications are for appointments. “Some of the commission members are paid,” she noted as an example. “Nobody knows that.”
She said board members should take steps to “make our processes more available so people understand how government works and how they can get involved.”
Supervisor MaryAnn Carr asked if IDEAC would like an opportunity to discuss its recommendations at the meeting, but Ms. Bittker, the liaison to that committee, said she thought the timing was a bit premature. Ms. Calves said she had read the IDEAC report and found it thoughtful, but she would like to get a broader analysis of the state of town committees and asked Ms. McCaine to share some analysis she had done.
Ms. McCaine said she compiled a comprehensive list of the committees, commissions, boards and task forces with the help of town clerk Lisbeth Fumagalli. The data revealed 26 current total vacancies across a small number of committees, including records management, veterans, seniors, historic district, communication, Blue Mountain Housing Corp., and planning board. In addition, 40 people have served over 10 years on the same committee, while over a dozen serve on multiple committees.
Ms. McCaine said these figures suggest that the committees tended to hold onto members who might have “a wealth of knowledge,” but also “eliminates the opportunities for other people to serve.”
Ms. Calves said before the board dives into drafting changes, she recommended a survey of current committee chairs and members to learn more about their recruiting needs and goals. “Is there certain expertise they’re looking for on that committee? How do they think that committee might benefit from more diversity or new members?” she asked.
Kate Galligan, in her final board meeting before departing at the end of February, said it would be reasonable to expect a wide range of committee needs. “It’s just one tricky part of coming up with a blanket policy for all the committees,” she said.
Ms. Bittker noted that several committees were inactive, and the board should consider eliminating them if they were no longer needed. “You’re right, nobody’s had the nerve to take some of those off,” Ms. Fumagalli replied.
Town attorney Eric Gordon said he had reviewed the recruitment policy under consideration. He wanted to make sure the town board and the public understand that some of the boards — planning board, zoning board, ethics board — need to comply with New York state requirements. Also, he noted, there are requirements in the town code regarding the number of members and length of terms for some groups. “It’s going to be difficult to adopt any kind of law that sets forth uniform procedures for boards, and probably not even possible,” he said. He said he supported development of a general policy regarding filling vacancies, but didn’t know if it should take the form of a law, which would require rigid adherence in all circumstances.
Ms. Bittker agreed, saying that was a reason the policy was “on the back burner. There is so much we need to do to get there, it wasn’t even on the agenda,” she added.
IDEAC member Elizabeth Messinger said it was heartening to see that “our policy recommendations have galvanized the board to take on some of this.”
Ms. Carr said the board recognizes that committee work and recruitment needs to continue without interruption while deliberations on policy continue. Still, she noted, “We have a number of vacancies that are open and there’s no procedure on how we make those vacancies known to people,” she said.
As a next step, Deirdre Courtney-Batson, planning board chair, suggested a work session with all board and committee chairs to discuss recruitment and other issues.
Ms. Calves said she and Ms. Bittker would survey the chairs, using a standard set of questions, and report back their findings. Ms. McCaine offered to help craft solutions and run those by the chairs for feedback. They agreed to present their report to the board in early March.