Commitment, not smaller quorum, key to advisory commissions [Editorial]

It's OK for the Town of Bel Air to reduce the quorum requirement for an operation like its Cultural Arts Commission, but there is at least one better option the town commissioners could employ to address the situation at hand.

Earlier this week, the board of town commissioners voted to reduce from six to three the number of members needed to constitute a quorum of the nine-member Bel Air Cultural Arts Commission. It's not that big a deal because the commission in question has no governmental powers, acting only in an advisory capacity to the board of town commissioners.

According to the town website, the cultural arts commission consists of people who serve on a strictly volunteer basis – receiving no compensation – and they need not be residents of the town. Lowering the quorum requirement from six to three means that if a meeting is held to discuss, for example, possible designs for a renovation to the Shamrock Park band shell, it can make an official recommendation if only three to five people show up. Previously, the recommendation could be made – at least in an official capacity – only if five or more of the appointed members were part of the decision.

Realistically speaking, because the cultural arts commission acts in an advisory capacity – the town commissioners could ignore any advice given – the distinction between an official quorum-decided recommendation and an unofficial opinion issued by those who saw fit to show up is negligible.

From a certain perspective, it behooves the board of town commissioners to seek such recommendations from as broad a base as possible, thus a recommendation discussed by nine people would be preferable to one offered by a smaller group. The more people participating, the greater the likelihood for coming up with something with broad-based appeal.

Which is where the better solution to the problem comes into play: Getting people on the commission who are willing and able to attend most, if not all, meetings.

It's a more tender issue than would seem to be the case from afar. Because the cultural arts commission is a volunteer group, it's not really possible to hold its members feet to the fire or demand that they attend meetings, and taking action to have volunteers removed from such positions isn't a particularly good option for a variety of reasons.

Two decades ago, a mayor of Havre de Grace found out just how much anger could be stirred up when he asked for the resignations of the members of just about every city board and commission. Though there was more to the story than simply wanting to change the membership on the boards, a few hurt feelings probably remain all these years later. The clear message: Don't fire volunteers.

Still, when people volunteer for such posts, availability to participate in regular meetings is an important part of the commitment. Moreover, personal situations change over time, so that someone who had no trouble attending regular meetings early in a term may not have that kind of flexibility later in a term.

Given these realities, it would be perfectly reasonable for town officials to approach members of advisory commissions who are regularly absent and see if they have an interest in continuing. Likely as not, those who volunteer for such posts recognize that, if they are no longer able to participate, they're not really serving the interest of the town. By the same token, there's no reason to remove a person who ends up missing a few meetings in a row because of a health issue or a family situation.

None of this, incidentally, applies to commissions vested with legal authority, such as planning commissions and boards of zoning appeals. These bodies make decisions that carry legal weight and that cannot necessarily be overturned by the town commissioners.

Attendance by members of these boards needs to be a high priority, and people on such boards need to be in attendance unless there truly are extenuating circumstances.

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