This week, Oro Valley leaders will honor the efforts of residents who volunteer their time to the community.

Civic engagement has been a source of pride to town leaders, with at least 400 people donating their time this year in various capacities, including those who take up the long-term commitments of sitting on the town’s 10 boards and commissions.

But a proposal to change the volunteer-board appointment process from most-qualified applicant to political appointments has some observers concerned.

Opponents say the change would institute a political spoils system in Oro Valley and possibly discourage future volunteerism. The suggestion also calls into question the cost benefit of town advisory boards.

As currently conceived, interested residents apply for openings on the boards and later sit for interviews with town employees and designated council members.

After vetting the applicants, the council votes to approve the candidates.

Under the proposal, however, the application process would be abandoned, in favor of allowing each town council member to appoint one person to each volunteer board.

“I don’t like it because it’s like cronyism,” Town Councilman Al Kunisch said.

Kunisch said he couldn’t see any problems with the current appointment process. Further, he said making political appointments would have negative consequences for volunteerism.

“How many people would want to go through the Citizens Planning Institute if they knew the council was going to appoint who they want?” Kunisch said.

Completion of the Citizens Planning Institute classes is a requirement for serving on volunteer boards. In those classes, residents learn about planning and zoning issues and state laws.

Northern Arizona University political science professor Zachary Smith agrees with Kunisch.

“This is an ill-conceived move that will politicize what is an otherwise non-partisan process,” Smith said.

In addition to 25 years teaching political science and public administration, Smith also was a Flagstaff City Council member. Flagstaff has roughly 60,000 residents and a fiscal 2009 budget of $230 million.

“If individual councilors are making the appointments, I don’t think that that’s good government,” Smith said.

Longtime volunteer Lyra Done similarly doesn’t want to see changes to the volunteer program. Done sat on the board of adjustment and finance and bond committee. She currently sits on the parks and recreation advisory board.

“There would be no transparency in the government of Oro Valley,” Done said.

But Town Councilman K.C. Carter sees it differently. He says the appointees would be the eyes and ears for the council member who appointed them.

“I think that it makes sense,” Carter said. “It’s a good move to get the council more involved in the commissions.”

Much of the impetus for change comes from a controversy last summer over the planned appointment of two members to the board of adjustment. That board, unlike other volunteer boards, works independently of the town council. Its decisions are binding and not subject to council approval.

After the interviews, the candidates were recommended for approval, but three residents spoke out at a council meeting against the two finalists. The residents complained that one of the candidates was too outspoken in letters published in The Explorer and in comments made on a local Web blog. The other candidate, they said, had allegedly shouted at another citizen during a public forum at the Oro Valley Library.

In addition, the three townspeople claimed the appointees were too friendly with the development community and should not be allowed on a board that deals with development disputes.

Council members voted to postpone the appointments. The council recently took up the issue again, approving new members to the development review board. Neither of the two original candidates was appointed.

Added to concerns about potentially politicizing appointments, some members of volunteer boards question the value of their efforts because the town council frequently changes or disregards their recommendations.

The recent rejection of a planning commission recommendation for approval of a general plan amendment requested by owners of a property near Oracle and Hardy roads illustrates the concern.

“We tried to address every issue as well as we could,” said planning commissioner Joe Hornat.

With that amendment request, commissioners attached a five-page list of conditions with their recommendation in an effort to address myriad concerns. Those conditions would have limited building height to 18 feet and provided a 50-foot buffer from existing residential development to mitigate neighbors’ concerns. The recommendation also addressed numerous natural factors associated with flooding as well as human-caused issues like traffic.

Commissioners even stipulated the times of trash collection at future development on the site — a level of specificity almost unheard of in general plan amendments, according to Planning Commission Chairwoman Teree Bergman, who holds a master’s degree in planning and worked in the field for more than 30 years before moving to Oro Valley.

Despite commissioners’ efforts, the town council rejected the general plan amendment 5- 2. Mayor Paul Loomis and Councilman Al Kunisch favored approval of the plan.

“That’s probably a prime example of a communication breakdown somewhere,” Bergman said.

For Planning Commissioner Bill Adler, decisions like the Oracle/Hardy amendment call into question the significance of convening volunteer commissions in the first place.

“What is the merit of the recommendations coming out of there?” Adler said.

Based on what he sees as a history of disregarding or altering recommendations, Adler suggested the town consider disbanding some boards and commissions in an effort to save money and resources.

Adler said a body like the development review board, which makes decisions concerning construction plans, would be one target for elimination.

The board makes subjective assessments based on commissioners’ and town employees’ interpretations of town codes, he said. As such, the council often alters, changes or completely disregards board recommendations.

Adler suggests letting the council take on that and other boards’ responsibilities to save money.

Costs associated with volunteer boards are scattered throughout the budget and town finance officials have not conducted an analysis of costs associated with the meetings.

Some expenses that would factor into an assessment include the time town workers spend preparing meeting packets, the wages of staffers who have to attend the meetings, the cost of recording the proceedings, and employee time spent writing transcripts of the often sparsely attended and brief meetings.

The development review board’s meetings this year averaged less than two hours. Other meetings, like planning and zoning, last considerably longer, averaging nearly three hours this year. In addition, food is provided for volunteers and town employees who spend evening hours at meetings.

“The volunteer program would have little impact on levels of service, but could have a huge impact on time investments,” Adler said.

The town council plans to take up the issue again at a future meeting.

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