County residents find some influence in advisory boards


Published: Thursday, May 1, 2014 at 2:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 1, 2014 at 2:18 p.m.

Some people might wonder if they really can make an impact by joining one of Alachua County's 30-plus advisory boards, which typically offer recommendations to the County Commission but have no real decision-making power.

Florida Organic Growers recently came to the commission with one instance in which a single advisory board member did indeed make an impact, although the organization didn't see it as a positive one.

Florida Organic Growers told the commission that one member of the Community Agency Partnership Program (CAPP) Advisory Board sunk its chances of getting county funding for two of its programs for fiscal year 2014 by giving those proposals significantly low scores. That knocked the growers' programs out of consideration for funding through CAPP, which gives reimbursements to nonprofits that provide services aimed at reducing poverty.

The county, as a result, is considering changing the scoring system that advisory board members use to rank CAPP applicants.

While a handful of the county's advisory boards are quasi-judicial decision-making boards, such as the Code Enforcement Board or the Board of Adjustment, other boards such as the Economic Development Advisory Committee (EDAC) are purely advisory in nature and can make only recommendations to the County Commission.

But local Realtor Dave Ferro, now in his third year on the EDAC, said he thinks his participation can make a difference. EDAC has developed a strategic plan, for example, that led to a recent workshop with county government and the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce.

"This is your chance to at least be heard at a level that isn't just at a commission meeting in front of a microphone for three minutes," Ferro said.

Joining EDAC also has been professionally beneficial for Ferro, who said it has strengthened his resume with clients because it gives them confidence he is current on local issues.

"I think that it just makes me a better commercial Realtor and a better citizen," he said.

Advisory Board Coordinator Jeremy Clements said many of the county's advisory board are, like the EDAC, purely advisory and generally meet on a monthly basis.

They are usually tasked with paying close attention to a particular county program and offering related advice to the County Commission, such as how the Veteran Services Advisory Board is responsible for reviewing the operation of the county's Veteran Services Office.

"In the pure sense of the word, they advise," Clements said.

Meanwhile, the quasi-judicial boards can make independent decisions on certain matters within their jurisdiction, he said.

Securing a spot on one of the quasi-judicial boards tends to be more competitive, with more applicants to choose from when slots open up, he said. Some of the quasi-judicials are mandated by state statute and thus might face a higher level of scrutiny from the state over what they're doing.

Before Bob Palmer joined the Environmental Protection Advisory Committee, he went to a couple of meetings to see if it was "just a gab society" or if the group was actually trying to accomplish things.

He liked what he saw and has been a member for several years now.

"If I felt like the commission didn't listen or didn't respond to maybe some of the public pressure (and) public interest that we generate on some of these things, I probably would have left by now," he said. "But if you're trying to do a serious analytical job on an issue, I think they listen."

Commissioner Susan Baird said she thinks advisory boards should be taken more seriously in the community than they have been in the past.

Baird said she would like to see more conservatives apply for the advisory boards since she has noticed more liberals getting involved with the boards than right-leaning residents.

Conservatives, particularly those involved in the local business community, might be reluctant to make the time commitment to an advisory board because they're used to a more fast-paced working environment and might see the slow work those boards do as a potential waste of time, Baird said. But she said she has been recruiting people she knows to consider joining an advisory board because the work the boards do does matter.

Although some advisory boards are more active than others, Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said all their contributions are appreciated.

Sometimes advisory boards will bring an issue to the commission for consideration, while other times the commission itself will ask an advisory board to weigh in on a specific matter.

"They're citizens who are interested in what happens at the county level, and their thought process is going to be probably not a whole lot different from ours, so it's always good to have another set of eyes that are looking at an issue," he said.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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