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York City struggles to fill volunteer boards

Sean Philip Cotter
505-5437/@SPCotterYD
  • York City is looking for volunteers to sit on its boards.
  • There's no experience required for most of the positions.

Only two York City Planning Commission members showed up to their August meeting, which caused the meeting to be canceled on the spot.

The two organizations scheduled to have their requests heard by the commission were forced to reschedule for next month's meeting, when the board will try to muster the four members necessary to conduct business.

Jessica Fieldhouse, the commission's secretary, said that unless the commission adds more members, cancellations could be the case more often.

"We are very close to not having a quorum, ever," she said.

In this file photo, architect Harrison Bink explains Tri Corner Homebuilding Solutions' plans for the Baker building at 232 E. Market St. in York City to the York City Planning Commission.

The city's planning commission is one of several city boards that have vacancies and continue to seek volunteers to provide a crucial role in governing York City.

Ideally, it wouldn't be a big deal if a couple of people couldn't make it to a meeting every now and then. After all, the planning commission board, like most of York City's boards, is voluntary — they don't pay you for the several hours a month you devote to city business. So if members have work meetings or some reasonably important personal engagements, they go to those instead.

Which is one of the  reasons why the city's boards try to have a body in every possible seat.

The planning commission, for example, can have as many as seven members. But right now, it only has four who come to meetings regularly; a fifth active member hasn't come to any meetings this year, and two spots are open, following the resignation of another member in July.

The city's Human Relations Commission, which historically  has struggled to put bodies in seats, has eight of 11 spots filled; the Zoning Hearing Board has four of five, the Historical Architecture Review Board has six of seven seats, and the consolidated board of appeals has two of three. The zoning hearing board also has two open "alternate" positions — people who could sub in on the board when needed — while HARB has one open and the consolidated board of appeals has three, according to the city website.

For the most part, the city's boards require little to no experience. All you need to fill any of hose open seats is live in the city and have an interest. The board members are appointed by Mayor Kim Bracey and confirmed by city council, a five-member board that isn't volunteer — they get $10,000 a year to do that elected, part-time job.

The issue: The problem of vacancies is more acute for the planning commission than for the other boards, according to assistant city solicitor Jason Sabol. This is because for the planning commission, unlike the other boards, a quorum — a majority, so they can have a meeting —  is based on the total number of possible members, rather than the number of active members, Sabol said. With seven possible members, a quorum is always four, which is the number of members normally coming to meetings. If any one of them can't show up, the meeting must be canceled, said city planner Nicole Gallup.

"It’s actually almost to the point of being detrimental," she said.

The planning commission is an advisory board, meaning it can't make binding decisions itself. Most of its meetings focus on screening cases for the zoning hearing board. It also has significant input into the zoning ordinances and city's long-term "comprehensive plan," though any changes to those have to be voted on by city council.

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So this month, temporarily, some of the gears of the application-granting process ground to a halt. With the planning commission unable to muster a quorum, the two organizations appearing before it opted just to come back Sept. 12, when the commission's next meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, 101 S. George St.

They could have opted to bring the cases before the zoning hearing board. But, according Gallup, it behooves applicants to go through the planning commission first.

That's "the first time they get to hear the plan looked at and vetted," she said.

Sabol, the solicitor, said most of the other boards aren't in quite the same position because their bylaws specify that the quorum is based off the total appointed members. So, for example, the 11-seat Human Relations Commission would need six members to show up if all the seats were filled, but right now, with only eight people appointed to it, it only needs five to show up. The HRC deals with bias-related incidents in areas such as housing and employment.

Ken Woerthwein, a member of the HRC, said it's important for the board to have members from all different backgrounds.

"So we have more representation from all different parts of society," he said. "We lost our one Latino board member, so we need another Latino board member. ... As far as we know, we don't have a member of the LGBT community."

He said this is particularly crucial when dealing with cases of bias.

"If you don't face that type of discrimination, you might not even think about it," he said.

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And then there's the consolidated board of appeals, which needs both of its active members to show up in order to have a quorum, Gallup said. That body, which is tasked with hearing appeals of warnings from the city about property violations, in theory is supposed to have three active members and three more alternates who can step in if someone can't make it to a given meeting. Now that the city is ramping up blight-enforcement efforts, that board is going to be necessary as people contest them, according to Gallup.

"We’re really going to need these positions filled," she said.

Fieldhouse, from the planning commission, put some of the onus for this back on city staff to lead in finding volunteers and weeding out volunteers who aren't showing up.

"The city government has boards and authorities that need attention from staff," she said. "I think that piece is missing."

She said the city should appeal to multicultural organizations and local church congregations to look for people to sit in these seats.

"Do I feel that the board represents the diversity of the city? No," she said. "Four people isn't a lot to represent the diversity that is York City."

Looking for volunteers: The city is doing its best to dig up volunteers for all the open positions, said Shilvosky Buffaloe, the city's interim director of economic and community development.

"The city of York is actively looking for residents and community members to participate," he said.

Buffaloe said he tries to ask any of the organizations he deals with if anyone from them is looking to get involved with the city.

Gallup, who said she'd circulated the job descriptions to civic organizations, such as the Rotary Club, said the jobs would be a good fit for people looking to make a difference in their community and get their feet wet in local politics without diving all the way in.

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"If you get someone who’s really interested in zoning, it can be a sexy position," she said, talking about the planning commission seats. "They don't seem very prestigious, but they do have a lot of impact."

All the city officials interviewed said this isn't a particularly new issue. The city has struggled for years to get some vacancies filled.

"It’s fear of commitment," said HARB president Dennis Kunkle, who speculated on people's thought processes: "Something like, 'Attending meetings in the city? Well, I hate to be tied down.'"

Buffaloe encouraged people against thinking like that.

"Jump in, the water’s fine," he said. "It’s not a bad thing to be part of the solution."

He said anyone wanting to get involved should send in their resume, and the city will work to find the best fit for them. His email is sbuffaloe@yorkcity.org.

— Sean Cotter covers York City for The York Dispatch. Contact him atscotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.