For the second time this year, the election of officers became an issue for a local governing board, and once again, it didn’t have to be.
First, there was a messy — and, ultimately, abortive — attempt to replace the leaders of the Cambria Community Healthcare District board before their year in the positions of president and vice president were up.
Then, this past week, there was a single vote to retain the two leaders of the Cambria Community Services District for a second consecutive year.
Newly appointed (but returning) Director Greg Sanders made the motion to keep President Gail Robinette and Vice President Mike Thompson in their posts, arguing that continuity of leadership was necessary as the district pursues a permanent Coastal Development Permit for its Sustainable Water Facility.
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His motion, seconded by Thompson, passed 3-1, with Amanda Rice voting against it and Jim Bahringer absent. The vote came despite the fact that leadership positions have, customarily, rotated from one year to the next and even though Rice — who received the most votes of three directors elected in 2012 — remains the only member of the board who hasn’t served as either president or vice president.
As the district’s legal counsel, Tim Carmel, pointed out at the meeting, the procedure didn’t violate the district’s bylaws, and the directors were fully within their rights to act as they did.
But that doesn’t mean it was a good idea.
For one thing, nominating Robinette and Thompson as a bloc deprived the board of an opportunity to select officers individually — perhaps retaining one officer from 2015 while appointing a new officer to the second position. (It might be argued that having one leadership holdover from the previous year would have been sufficient to ensure the continuity Sanders sought.)
For another, the board’s decision to forgo the usual rotation of officers could create a public perception that some of its members don’t trust Rice’s ability to lead, making it more difficult — or at least less comfortable — for the directors to work together in the future.
This would be another problem of perception for a board that has been faced with a series of such problems this year on issues ranging from fire protection to water rate increases.
Audience member Laura Swartz, a Cambria Forest Committee director, said so straight out: “The public perception at this point is not good. It’s like leaders won’t step down, even though this is a democracy. We’ve sat here through years, and everybody else has rotated. This is the only time we’ve seen it hasn’t, and I’m really disappointed on that. ... There’s something wrong with this process.”
Elections activist Christina Tobin remarked: “I am disheartened by the procedure of not taking a free equal chance of turns for each individual to represent the board, whether it be as vice president or president. … It definitely is questionable.”
Questionable perhaps. But was it necessary?
Sanders argued that retaining the same leadership was desirable “for purposes of presenting the same face to elected officials who have control over what the district can do and cannot do.”
Rice, however, noted that she had spent a “significant amount of time” in developing relationships with the Coastal Commission and its staff, adding that her message on this issue had been consistent with the board’s as a whole.
“I don’t think that regulatory agencies are unfamiliar with the fact that officers of boards like ours change every year,” she said.
And while the pursuit of a permanent coastal permit is, indeed, a major concern for the district, it’s not the only one facing the board or the only concern of its officers. Issues such as fire service, water and sewer rate increases, upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant and dangers to the community’s Monterey pine forest are among those facing the district. And according to CCSD bylaws, the president’s responsibilities include a variety of functions beyond dealing with agencies on the permit issue — something the district is already paying a public relations firm thousands of dollars a month to do.
Those responsibilities include chairing the board’s meetings (a role filled by the vice president in the president’s absence) and making committee appointments. The president and vice president also have roles in setting agendas for board meetings that are prepared by the general manager.
It should be pointed out that the bylaws do, in fact, also identify the president as “the point person for intergovernmental relations.” They further state, however, that the president doesn’t have to perform this function personally, but can instead name a “designate” to act on his or her behalf on such occasions.
So if the leadership had rotated as it usually does, the new president could have designated Robinette, Thompson or someone else to act on the board’s behalf if he or she had decided to do so.
In light of this, was there really a good reason to bypass Rice for the leadership post that would have fallen to her under the normal rotation? Was there really a good reason to create another problem of perception for a board that has dealt with more than one of them so far this year?