Term Limits, Briefly Considered – 2017

There was a discussion last night at the Whitewater Common Council about term limits (if any) for appointees to city boards and commissions. The discussion followed a briefer one on 4.18.17.

I mentioned yesterday that this would be an interesting agenda topic, and it was. It’s worth noting that although I thought there should have been advance notice in the press about it, I don’t have a single strong opinion on this matter. Instead, for me it’s ambivalence: not indifference, to be sure, but rather conflicting sentiments. (Yesterday’s post described the topic as historical: “reflections not of where Whitewater’s going, as much as where she has been (and where she is)”).

The matter has been referred to a community involvement committee within the council, and they’ll consider options. One can write at greater length when there’s a proposal to consider.

Two quick points for now:

1. Remarks about the city needing to do more for those who have volunteered strikes me as right. Term limits or not, most committees have a useful role but not a particularly ideological one: volunteering should be rewarded. Whitewater, on her own, can easily come up with ideas for acknowledging committee and board members, including ones who currently receive less recognition.

2. It’s true that expertise matters. It may not matter everywhere equally, but it does matter. The trick here – one that could not be solved in brief remarks – is how to assess and select based on a broad understanding of expertise. It comes in more than one form, and extends beyond formal academic credentials to experiences in past or present work. Too much emphasis on formal work will be counter-productive.

Any discussion of expertise, of whatever kind, has to be done in an understated way to avoid creating unnecessary offense.

(It’s worth noting that in the ten years I’ve been publishing FREE WHITEWATER, I’ve not once held myself out as an expert, touted particular academic credentials or accomplishments, or professional work. There’s no fixed route to expertise; it’s for that reason that tribunals have discretion in certifying experts.)

It seems to me a general truth that in all communities one finds many sharp and capable people. Indeed, I am convinced that most people are sharp indeed, and that society could not function half so well if it were otherwise. One many need instruction of various yet particular kinds, but of natural ability one sees abundance all around, of any race, ethnicity, or gender. 

This means that to give reasonable form to an acknowledgement of expertise will take some review. Unlike what should be the overdue but easy fix of acknowledging existing committee members (internally done), a plan for evaluating expertise should look to what other communities have done successfully (an external review).

Critically, any plan this city might adopt regarding expertise, tenure, term limits, etc., must be neutral concerning gender, race, or ethnicity. No one would intentionally wish otherwise, but it’s necessary to avoid inadvertent yet nonetheless impermissible barriers to participation on those bases.

Whitewater is sure to have more discussion on the topic. Our community is more than capable of crafting a solid approach.

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