A plan by City Councilor Tom Blake to better publicize board vacancies and create a protocol for responding to applicants was met with a muted response by the South Portland City Council Monday night.

Blake told members at a City Council workshop he hopes to improve the efficiency by which residents are appointed to voluntary posts on boards and various ad-hoc committees.

His 10 recommendations include publicizing open board seats on cable access TV, giving copies of applications to board chairs and keeping a running list of residents who want to volunteer for posts.

Currently there is no written policy for handling applications. It is up to councilors, who nominate individuals from their district, to decide whether to respond to, or even interview, applicants for an open post.

“With a new trend of increased volunteerism in America, we are seeing a spike in applications and interest in participation,” Blake said, noting the recent response by South Portland residents to fill open seats on the Planning Board and Conservation Commission.

“Historically, however, we have seen considerable extended vacancies. This trend may return in the future,” he said.

Blake said he believes a first step should be for each councilor to act as a liaison to one or two boards. The councilor would be able to keep track of the needs, progress and challenges the board faces.

But Mayor Jim Soule said he was not aware there were problems with how the city accepts applications and appoints board members.

Soule said he did not believe that Blake’s 10-point plan was needed, though he emphasized that individual councilors should respond to each application they receive.

Other councilors opposed the idea of acting as liaisons to boards, saying board members should act independently and without the influence of individual council members.

City Clerk Susan Mooney currently receives applications and sends copies to councilors. She also lists vacancies on the city’s Web site.

After Blake made his presentation, Mooney questioned how she could get the additional work done on tracking applicants. She said she currently maintains a database of applicants, and her staff cannot take on a greater workload than it already has.

The council’s appointment process became highly visible in 2008 as Councilor Maxine Beecher sought to replace long-time Planning Board member Craig Babbidge, who resigned from jail, where he was being held on a probation violation.

Beecher and other councilors complained that it was difficult to find qualified residents to serve on numerous boards.

But two people Beecher identified early on as candidates for the open Planning Board seat said they did not realize they were in the running for the job.

Both John Hatch and Suzi Tracy said they had submitted applications up to a year ago, but had never heard back from Beecher.

“I filled out the information (on the application), submitted it and never heard a word,” Tracy said last month.

Tracy made an initial call to Beecher, after being contacted by a news reporter.

Resident Steve Jocher recently was appointed to fill that Planning Board seat, saying that he became aware of the opening when reading news reports of Babbidge’s resignation.

Part of Blake’s plan is to better publicize board vacancies.

“I’m just looking for some continuity and standardization of guidelines,” Blake said.

Under the current system, each councilor makes one appointment to each board.

In 2008, the council plans to create an additional board on economic development and double the size of the seven-member Conservation Commission.

“I thought this was a great time to fix what I consider gaps in our process,” Blake said. “My recommendations all seem like pretty minor stuff that requires no ordinance changes. I feel we owe it to our volunteers to be better organized.”

The City Council appoints more than 60 volunteers to serve on the following boards: planning, conservation, zoning appeals, civil service, housing authority, library, recycling, harbor, assessment review and community development.

The City Council is expected to make 17 appointments in 2008 for posts with terms set to expire. On some boards, current members will be tapped to serve another term. In addition, the City Council periodically sets up ad-hoc committees and appoints residents to study various city issues. Recent committees have studied war memorials, police staffing and the future of the armory.

A CLOSER LOOK

Here are City Councilor Tom Blake’s 10 proposals:

1. Appoint a city councilor as a liaison for each committee or board. The councilor would be expected to sit in on a meeting once a year.

2. Provide copies of all applications to committee chairs. Currently all applications only go to the councilors.

3. Create job descriptions for board seats and mission statements for boards, which is now done on a limited basis.

4. Develop a standard protocol for responding to every applicant. City councilors typically do not respond to applicants until a board seat is open. There is no guarantee that every applicant will hear back from a council member.

5. Increase publicity of board openings with notices on public TV, the city’s monthly newsletter and in tax bills. Currently, the city lists openings on its Web site.

6. Update the application form itself to give the City Council more information on candidates.

7. Maintain a database of applicants.

8. Create an e-mail system for contacting residents who want to volunteer as posts open.

9. Start a city government subscription service to better inform residents of meeting dates, volunteer opportunities and vacancies. Residents could learn when ad hoc committees are meeting, including the Armory and War Memorial committees. There is no process for that now.

10. Create an annual recognition of volunteers for their service. Councilor Maxine Beecher honored residents this year but there is no formal process in place.


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