[Marin County] Editorial: What’s the public cost of boards’ ‘obscurity’?

Blog note: this editorial suggests that the grand jury could examine the issues addressed. We have seen an increasing number of articles over the past few years where the media and are proposing grand jury investigations on specific topics.  

Marin residents are fortunate that among them are citizens willing and ready to step forward and serve their communities on public boards, councils and commissions.

Most do it as a public service, volunteering their time, talent and energy to help make their community a better place.

Some do so with almost no public attention. Local fire and sewer board meetings, for example, draw scant attendance, save an occasional public uproar, typically over raising taxes or rates.

But most of the time, even those decisions are made in boardrooms with few or no members of the public in attendance.

They also often don’t get much media attention. Nor do they do much to seek greater citizen awareness about their pending decisions, or those they may have already made.

Online postings of agendas are an improvement. Public notices meet a necessary legal requirement, but are not written in a way to encourage public interest.

But, for example, if more public agencies had done more to fully explain to taxpayers the short- and long-term costs of pension benefits and retiree medical coverage — or even the cost of staffing requirements — that were buried in worker contracts, they may have been able to avoid the costly fiscal quandaries taking a large toll on their budgets that also are leading to higher tax bills.

Yes, these public servants are relied on to do the heavy lifting of democracy. But a decision by members of the Central Marin Sanitation Agency to vote themselves a pay raise — more than doubling their per-meeting pay to $225 — put a spotlight on what Larkspur resident James Holmes calls “exploiting their obscurity.”

The agency staff recommended the pay hike, maintaining the job has grown to be more complex and time-consuming than in the past.

And to be fair, Central Marin’s higher paychecks are not at the top of the list of the best-paid board members. Ross Valley Sanitary District directors, for example, pay themselves $314 per meeting.

Sure, there is homework and reading to do before the monthly and often twice-monthly meetings, but the job of serving on a sewer board is less involved and takes a lot less time than serving on a council or a school board, where in many cases around Marin the pay is less.

In addition, on some of these “obscure” boards paychecks are sweetened with medical care, a benefit that may be worth a lot more than their per-meeting paychecks.

In Central Marin’s case, three of its five board members are serving as delegates from city and town councils, posts for which they are already getting paid.

The problem is there is little rhyme or reason for what is fair or appropriate compensation for board members. Is it the geographic size of the agency? The size of its budget? The average amount of time the job demands? The length of its meetings?

Who knows? Given the range paid across Marin, it’s hard to tell.

And given the “obscurity” of these boards and their below-the-public-radar handling of the public’s business, they have decided their own pay and benefits without much outreach to taxpayers.

Many school board trustees, for example, spend more time dealing with more complex and sometimes emotion-packed decisions than sewer board directors. Most often, they are donating their time.

Perhaps the Marin County Civil Grand Jury can research the issue and come up with appropriate guidelines for board members’ compensation.

Marin’s special districts are not new territory for local grand jury reviews. Often, jury reports have pressed for merging or consolidating these smaller agencies as a way to save taxpayer money and improve services.

Some mergers have taken place, but more could be pursued, and possibly taxpayers could learn what “obscurity” is costing them.

October 28, 2018

Marin Independent Journal

By Editorial Board