With more than 1,800 seats and rules tailored to each of the nearly 200 bodies that tend to require specific skills or expertise, officials say filling vacancies takes time

Nearly 7 percent of political appointments across the San Diego County government are vacant, either because the terms expired, they were abandoned by seat holders or they are languishing while elected officials ponder fresh nominations.

And persistent vacancies on San Diego city boards and commissions are even more widespread, with nearly one in five positions available for public appointment vacant, an analysis by The San Diego Union-Tribune has found.

Both of the sprawling bureaucracies rely on an army of civic-minded volunteers to perform much of the leg work that elected officials and department heads consider in their everyday decision-making.

And the hundreds of vacancies across every sector of the city and county governments have prompted delays in policymaking, enforcement and land-use planning, among other routine duties, interviews and records show.

Sometimes board vacancies are more than an inconvenience.

The county Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, for example, had to cancel its meeting last Tuesday due to the lack of a quorum.

It was not the first time the civilian oversight board was unable legally to convene in recent months. Multiple vacancies that have persisted since last year have repeatedly forced the board to call off or push back its work.

The city’s Ethics Commission, meanwhile, could not fulfill all of its obligations last year due to a lack of nominations from Mayor Todd Gloria. After several fits and starts, the panel charged with enforcing city campaign-finance and lobbying rules was fully seated this year.

“Ethics Commission staff needs the board to approve the executive director’s settlements and proposed fines, and it must vote to open new investigations,” said Sharon Spivak, who directs the commission.

“When there isn’t a quorum to meet, this can stall enforcement and undercut the commission’s ability to hold people accountable for violations,” she said.

San Diego city and county officials say they are doing their best to find qualified people to serve as political appointees. But with more than 1,800 seats and rules tailored to each of the nearly 200 bodies that tend to require specific skills or expertise, filling vacancies takes time, they say.

“If there’s a very specific seat that needs to be filled, we need to find someone with those qualifications to fill that seat, and if people aren’t applying or they don’t meet those qualifications, that could lead to an extended vacancy,” said Chida Warren-Darby, who runs Gloria’s office of boards and commissions.

Warren-Darby said the volunteer panels are the eyes and ears of elected officials. “They’re responsible for helping to generate that conversation and bringing those recommendations and conversations back to the (elected) body,” she said.

Although there are more than 300 open seats across the city and county panels, not all are considered vacant, as members can serve in expired terms until they are either reappointed or replaced.

According to officials, San Diego County has 154 active boards, commissions and committees as of June 7 — public bodies that examine everything from fire service and traffic to building permits and design review.

Of the 1,370 total seats, 10.6 percent, or 145, are considered “open” — 54 of them held by members serving in expired terms, and 91, or 6.6 percent of the total, actually vacant.

San Diego City Hall has fewer than a quarter as many commissions — 45 separate panels — but a notably higher vacancy rate, with vacancies on 62 percent of panels, according to public records as of June 7.

Records indicate that 40 percent, or 192, of the 479 seats were open — 109 seats still filled by appointees whose terms expired and 83 positions, or 17 percent, sitting vacant. And another 51 appointments are set to expire by next month.

University of California San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser said volunteer boards and commissions historically have performed an important role in American democracy.

“It flows from the impulse to have a citizen government, where normal people who have to live under laws and regulations and have an expertise from their lives can have a voice in government,” he said.

The UC San Diego political scientist said citizen panels can provide politicians cover for making difficult decisions — like a police accountability board. They also can present an appearance that an elected official is seeking to get to the bottom of a politically thorny issue.

“If you can’t get the bill or ordinance passed, you can always create a commission,” Kousser said. “That can explain why there are vacancies. A board may be a response to an emerging problem, but then when the momentum around it dissipates, who wants to serve?”

Such problems may have played a role in the difficulty other city and county commissions have faced in recent months.

The county Human Relations Commission degenerated into such a squabbling match over the past year that county supervisors decided to pause its meetings until key membership changes could be made.

The commission had already been working on updates to its bylaws that would strengthen the vetting of new members, require additional training and incentivize member participation.

But the new rules have yet to be implemented, pending an outside assessment. The county issued a request for proposals May 31 for a consultant to assess the body’s structure and role.

The city’s Youth Commission also has been working to make changes after struggling to attract enough members to constitute a legal meeting.

“For people who do show up, it’s very frustrating to come out to meetings, whether it’s virtually or not, just to not have quorum met,” said Mirei Kubota, a youth intern in the city’s Office of Child and Youth Success who has been serving as a liaison with the commission.

The body’s appointment process also can be blamed for delays in filling open seats.

Some youth were frustrated with the application and appointment process, which regularly stretched for months. Others feel disconnected from their district council offices.

“Our biggest challenge right now is just keeping the youth commissioners that we have on board motivated to attend the meetings and to get the work done,” said Avery Brooks, another intern who has been working with the volunteers. “They are not seeing anything being worked towards.”

In general, when it comes to appointing members of city and county commissions, most of the boards have different numbers of seats and different processes for winning one.

In general, city volunteers are appointed by the mayor or nominated by council members, then approved by a vote of the City Council, whereas county positions are often approved by the Board of Supervisors.

Warren-Darby said the city’s OnBoard website is in the process of being audited to verify current board rosters are accurate and see where the city’s needs are most pressing.

The city’s Board of Building Appeals and Advisors has only four of its 10 seats filled — and all by members serving in expired terms. Warren-Darby said the board is hard to fill because members are usually architects or engineers with busy professional lives.

“It makes it difficult to pull people into these spaces that don’t necessarily need to add board experience to their workload or their resume,” she said.

Appointees have long argued the city doesn’t do enough to support its volunteer commissions — a concern Warren-Darby acknowledged, noting that her office has too few staff to successfully support every panel and often struggles to find city departments to help them.

“The most important thing, I think, is to make sure that we’re hearing the recommendations from our community members that take their time and volunteer to serve on these boards,” county Supervisor Monica Montgomery Steppe told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “The more that people who serve are able to see the difference that they’re making in our system, the more participation we will have.”

Government boards and commissions face other challenges as well, officials say, from securing appropriate meeting space to reimbursing volunteers for parking or other expenses.

While such expenses may sound trivial, Andrew Strong, director of the county’s Office of Equity & Racial Justice, says even small reimbursements could help reduce barriers for low-income residents in underserved communities by allowing those who feel they don’t have a voice to participate.

State law also prohibits many of the groups from meeting virtually.

Legislation now making its way through the statehouse could change that. Assembly Bill 817 would give members of some local non-decision-making bodies the option of attending meetings online. An earlier version of the bill failed to advance to the Senate last year.

Meanwhile, San Diego is trying to consolidate at least some of its boards and commissions, folding their workloads into similar bodies.

Just last week, the City Council voted to dissolve its long-standing police accountability board after it struggled for years to fill vacancies.

The Bicycle Advisory Committee, which last met in 2019, helped implement a master bike plan before it was dissolved. Its duties were handed to the mobility board, a 13-member panel with three vacancies and just one of its 10 members not serving an expired term.

San Diego officials have made some strides in filling open board seats.

The Climate Advisory Board was completely vacant last year. All but one of its 15 seats were filled in April.

On Tuesday, the City Council approved a slew of appointments Gloria put forward to the Parks and Recreation Board, including four new appointees and five reappointments to the 11-member panel.

And in some instances, they’ve come up with creative ways to get the work done.

The city’s youth success office is creating special youth councils that aren’t governed by such strict rules but still offer young people a space to voice their concerns about issues that affect them.

Two years ago, the county issued an assessment of its boards and commissions. The report found that certain populations were disproportionately represented when compared to the overall county population.

In response, supervisors approved a major policy revision intended to improve participation and transparency. The county now has an online portal with information on the various bodies and applications for open seats.

The review also led to the creation of an administrative manual that provides standards to manage and support county boards and commissions.

Now, as the county prepares to get an outside look on one of its most embattled commissions, officials are hopeful that they can create a new set of best practices that can be replicated across all of its boards and commissions.

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