Harlan: Bring objectivity to commission appointments

This Tuesday, the Costa Mesa City Council will revisit the appointment of one planning commissioner and select four new members of the Parks and Recreation Commission.

Based on the council majority’s initial appointments a few weeks ago, I think we can expect political patronage to be on full display again.

Rewarding one’s supporters with plum political appointments is not unusual. In fact, many elected officials drum up support, especially in an election year, by dangling these positions in front of ambitious devotees. No promises are made, of course, but it’s hard for both the official and the supporter to resist the allure of having political power.

Both city commissions are often viewed as stepping stones to initiating or advancing a political career. Among the city’s various citizens’ committees, these commissions are the ones with the highest profiles, and the only ones in which appointees are compensated for their service. It is not surprising that vacancies usually field dozens of applicants for the coveted seats on the dais. (Disclosure: I have been appointed to, and served on, the city’s Cultural Arts Committee, and have applied to serve on other commissions).

Many of our council members, past and present, served on these commissions. The experience introduces them to the inner workings of government and to dealing directly with the public, both of which can be especially valuable to prospective policymakers. Acting as a commissioner also gives a citizen a taste of decision-making authority and presumably a sense of responsibility to the public he or she serves.

But over the past few years the commission-appointment process in Costa Mesa has looked more like a carefully orchestrated chess strategy. Vacancies are filled only with ardent supporters of the council majority. Incumbent commissioners are unceremoniously cast aside to make way for loyal up-and-comers. The commissions have become part of the growing political monolith here, a breeding ground for cultivating the next crop of like-minded council members.

Some may argue that of course the council majority members should be able to appoint whomever they desire; it’s their prerogative. Stated more bluntly: To the victor go the spoils.

But governing a community is not about winning and losing. It’s not a chess game, and that conceit really has no place in our civic affairs.

I recognize it’s a dicey proposition to question why a council member, for example, chooses one person to serve over other qualified applicants. Clearly, many of the recent candidates have skills, experiences and perspectives that could be valuable in these roles, and the fact that they opened themselves up to a seemingly arbitrary selection process takes some courage. But the process now has no objective standards and fails to serve the larger community by perpetuating political patronage.

Especially after this last election, we should fashion an equitable appointment process that better reflects the diversity and complexion of our 110,000-person community and offers a real and fair opportunity to those who apply.

One method would be to grant newly elected council members their own selection on each of the city’s two commissions. Since appointment terms generally coincide with the biannual elections — in this election, for example, we had three new members and three Planning Commission seats open — this approach would be easy to execute. In this scenario, council members Sandra Genis, Steve Mensinger and Gary Monahan would have the honors of selecting an appointee to fill each vacancy.

Another approach would be for appointments to come from designated geographic districts within the city. Building off of the idea of establishing council districts, this method would ensure that our various neighborhoods have equal representation.

We have generally defined neighborhoods now (e.g., Eastside, Mesa Verde, Mesa North), and the issues facing each one are varied and distinct. Having five planning commissioners, each with intimate knowledge of their own districts, would help provide much needed perspectives for site-specific questions and balanced viewpoints for citywide matters.

In any case, appointing commissioners should focus on broad representation, not simply controlling or consolidating political power. If there is a sincere desire by this council to include the public and consider our input in the city’s decision-making, then let’s reform the antiquated and self-serving appointment process now.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.