In our opinion: There is such a thing as too many volunteer committees

Members of the Langley City Council, as well as other local elected officials on Whidbey, should be mindful when it comes to setting up and dealing with a plethora of volunteer committees.

The council members had a lively discussion this week about whether the number of committees should be pared. They are scheduled to continue the discussion during a council workshop and regular meeting on Tuesday.

Of course, committees can be valuable for government leaders who want to hear different perspectives and understand what the community thinks about an issue. Volunteer committees are one way to tap into the expertise and passions of people in the community.

Serving on government committees — whether it’s an affordable housing commission, an arts committee or a ferry advisory board — encourages residents to engage in their local government and learn how things truly work. Being on a committee can provide important experience for future elected officials.

Some committees, like planning commissions or mosquito abatement districts, are required by law.

On the other hand, citizen committees have their drawbacks. Setting up such committees can be a way for elected officials to avoid public scrutiny, tough decisions or fully educating themselves on issues.

Such committees don’t have to comply with open meetings rules since a quorum of elected officials isn’t present at meetings. That means important discussions about important issues occur behind closed doors.

The volunteers on committees were not elected and shouldn’t be making decisions for elected officials or governmental bodies.

While the role of nearly all committees is to give recommendations, elected officials have a habit of adopting these recommendations without public discussion or further inquiry. One elected officials once said she felt it would be rude not to follow a committee recommendation after the members did so much work, even though she had concerns.

There are also practical considerations. Committees have to be staffed by government employees and city facilities have to be available for meetings. That means increased cost and complicated scheduling. Sending everything through a committee also delays governmental decision making and can lead to a “discussion paralysis.”

It’s ultimately a balancing act. Some number of committees is necessary and healthy, but Langley and local government in general should err on the side of being both transparent and lean in its operations.