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Harlan: Bring objectivity to commission appointments

February 02, 2013|By Jeffrey Harlan

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.

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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.

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