After the Yakima City Council decided Oct. 1 to disband four committees dedicated to public safety, economic development, healthy communities and partnerships, people had questions.

What would happen next? How would concerns on these issues continue to be heard? What were the 39 other committees that council members belonged to, which apparently were such a time drain? And how often did council members actually attend these meetings?

Here’s what council members had to say.

Council commitments

Members’ obligations increased in April, when a 5-2 vote barred Councilwoman Kay Funk from serving on any committees, commissions or boards for six months. The remaining council members had to pick up Funk’s obligations.

That left six council members to serve on four City Council committees, seven advisory committees and 39 external committees.

City spokesman Randy Beehler provided information about the committees on which council members served, either as a council representative or as a liaison.

Ten committees required council representation by state statute, city agreement or federal law. Beehler said council representation on the other committees, though not required, is beneficial.

He noted, as an example, that council representation isn’t required on the Yakima Valley Tourism Board of Directors, but the city owns the Convention Center and contracts with Yakima Valley Tourism to operate it.

“In many of these committees, the city has a vested interest so it makes sense that there would be representation on them,” he said.

According to a three-page listing of the committees, commissions and task forces:

  • Councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez serves as a representative or a liaison for 11 committees and as an alternate or alternate liaison on three.
  • Councilman Jason White serves as a representative or a liaison for eight committees and as an alternate or alternate liason on one.
  • Councilwoman Carmen Mendez serves as a representative or a liaison for 12 committees and as an alternate or alternate liaison on three.
  • Funk does not serve on any committees, given an April vote that barred her from doing so for six months.
  • Mayor Kathy Coffey serves as a representative or a liaison for seven committees and as an alternate or alternate liaison on one.
  • Councilman Brad Hill serves as a representative or a liaison for four committees and as an alternate or alternate liaison on four.
  • Councilwoman Holly Cousens serves as a representative or a liaison for four committees and as an alternate or alternate liaison on seven.

Meeting times, days and frequencies varied, from 8 a.m. through 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and on a monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, or “as-needed” basis.

Beehler said council members have expressed an interest in taking a closer look at their representation on these boards, but any changes would have to involve the external agencies.

“They wanted to start with the council committees because they have complete control over that,” Beehler said.

Shift to study sessions

Following its Oct. 1 vote, the council directed city staff to schedule evening full-council study sessions to increase transparency and public engagement, as the later times would not conflict with normal work hours.

Hill, whose motion disbanded the council committees, enlisted Beehler’s help to respond to a Yakima Herald-Republic inquiry about why his motion focused specifically on disbanding the council committees. The written response from Beehler and Hill indicates the council had several discussions about the internal and external committee structures and how they could be revised to maximize time and efficiency, while ensuring the same commitment to public safety, economic development, and other important issues would not change. Hill ahd Beehler wrote that the study sessions will still allow for in-depth discussion of issues formerly delegated to committees, while full-council consideration likely will remove delays.

“By having crucial issues, such as public safety issues, initially presented to the full council during a study session rather than going through a long committee process, I am convinced the council will be better able to respond to such issues in a more timely and efficient manner,” Beehler and Hill wrote.

White, who chaired the Economic Development Committee, said he supported the shift because of irritation with delays that came from committee issues being brought to the full council, then sent back to committee on a seemingly infinite loop.

“For me it was the frustration of dealing with topics for months in committee and then having them dismissed in seconds by the full council,” he said.

White pointed to a Yakima Avenue project that the Economic Development Committee has worked on for more than six months, including back-and-forth between committee and council. The project is being scheduled for a study session, he said.

“I did like the vetting process, but I think we could move more quickly,” he said.

Mendez, who chaired the now-disbanded Partnerships Committee, said partnerships work, including appointments, will continue in the study sessions.

“The only thing that changes is that now legislative priorities will go straight to council versus the committee having an opportunity to review them and do some of the prep work,” she said.

Gutierrez, who chaired the Public Safety Committee and voted against the motion to disband it, said time in committee was well spent. She added that prior to this council, it was uncommon for issues worked on in committees to flounder once they came back to the full council for approval.

“I’m not sure why things are working in such a disorganized manner,” she said.

Mendez pointed to a lack of council member commitment as a factor.

“The committees are being disbanded, not because there is not enough work, or good work to be done, just not enough council commitment,” she said.

Will it work?

Cousens noted that work done in committee meetings has to come back to the full council and expressed hope that the study sessions would eliminate delays. She expressed hope that shifting to an evening study session format will allow the council to better address concerns from constituents and also push policy forward in a more efficient and collaborative manner.

“Oftentimes a lot of work will go into something, and in less than five minutes it is killed once in front of the council,” Cousens said. “It is my opinion this happens because the full council is not aware of how the topic came about and the time and effort that was spent working on it. By allowing all seven of us to work on these issues collaboratively, I believe we will not only streamline things but we will be able to get more done this way.”

Moving forward, Gutierrez said she hopes all council members who have ideas or community concerns to share at the study sessions will be given adequate time to do so.

“I would like to see time and opportunity given to all,” she said. “It’s not fair to the community members who want to be heard, or for those council members who are representing the community, to be rushed when they bring up an idea.”

White also expressed hope that a new council, following the November election, will bring improvements to council discussions.

“With the new council coming in, I think there will be more cohesion and working together,” he said. “It’s important for everyone to be heard, so choosing a chair who is more patient will be important moving forward.”

Gutierrez and White differed in their thoughts as to whether the study sessions will be more effective than committee meetings. With the disbanding of the committees, Gutierrez noted there is no longer a designated representative to push for certain priorities.

“I take it that now it’s everyone’s responsibility to improve public safety and economic development,” she said. “And we’ll see if that works out well for the community, because sometimes if you don’t have a designated lead then there isn’t a lot of progress.”

White said he hopes that not dividing issues into committees will have the benefit of engaging all council representatives equally.

“Sometimes there would be an argument or a delay because we didn’t know which committee an issue should go to, because there’s overlap,” White said. “Now the issues can’t be divided. I think it’s going to bring higher transparency to council.”

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.