Recruiting Oversight to Advance Your Mission – A Story of Best Practices Between a Local Agency’s Staff and Commission

When I was appointed to the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commission, I thought I had the experience and training to hit the ground running and make immediate improvements in the conditions of my community.

But despite all I knew about the levers and gears of local governance, I had yet to learn the more subtle, human dynamics that ultimately pull those levers and turn those gears. Over the next year and a half, I gained an education in best practices between a local agency’s staff and its oversight body.   

The commission oversees the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, a consolidation of the two public housing authorities and two redevelopment agencies of the City and County of Sacramento. As an oversight body, we commissioners are appointed, frankly, to be a pest for agency staff who are trying to do their jobs.

We are supposed to ask those nagging questions about obscure details we find in staff reports and proposed actions. And often knowing far less than staff about the nuances of agency programs, we are in the position to highlight, in a public forum, what we see as flaws in those programs.

As much as we try to see ourselves as being on the same side, an aspect of the staff-commission relationship is inherently adversarial. One of the commission’s core duties is to question the decisions and performance of staff. But while we’re pontificating, staffers are just trying to do their jobs, working with what they’ve got, when they’ve got it, making difficult decisions and putting together complicated deals. There are a lot of loose threads in a redevelopment project, and commissioners are expected to pull on those threads. The potential for friction is high.

About a year ago, staff proposed entering into an Exclusive Right to Negotiate with a developer on the matter of several blighted properties the agency owned in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood. Because the properties adjoin the intersection of two major thoroughfares, their fate is closely intertwined with the broader effort to revitalize the areas of Oak Park that had become isolated and distressed decades ago. The properties were critical to the community’s entire redevelopment plan.

So when staff proposed to sign an ERN with a developer, we wanted to know what this ERN meant for the property. How does this bind us? How does this circumscribe the property’s fate? Technically, an ERN is merely an agreement to set aside a period of time for the agency to negotiate with the developer, without guaranteeing that a deal ever comes to fruition. But we did wonder just how close to a deal the developer and agency had already come, and to what extent this ERN would lock us into the terms of that nascent deal.

Oak Park’s residents filled the commission’s meeting room that day with looks of concern. Some had long-standing thoughts of what should be built on the intersection while others had preconceived ideas of what the developer planned to put there – and they didn’t all like it. When residents testified on the matter, increasingly, their comments objected not to a proposed ERN, but to a proposed “project,” as though the ERN contained a foregone conclusion of what the intersection would look like.

Commission meetings can be an abrupt juncture in the agency process. Staff crafts a request for proposals, solicits developers, evaluates submissions, whittles down the short list, and finally drafts an ERN – all behind closed doors. Not until the ERN is complete is it recommended to the commission, which has no grasp of the quiet inner workings that led to this point. But it can be just as jarring for staff, as all their work is placed before a firing squad possibly unsympathetic to the momentum and vision that took it this far.

As we began to dive into the proposal, our questions couldn’t help but reflect the rumors posed in citizen comments, that the developer had disagreeable plans for the property, or that a deal had already been struck. I wondered out loud, “Although the proposed ERN doesn’t technically prescribe a project, we are talking about a developer whose competencies and work history almost guarantee a specific type of project…” Other commissioners, like myself, were beginning to form an opinion that the proposal was too fully baked.

But of course our conjecture was based on limited information. In the same way that an opinion is a reflection of what you know, it also reflects what you don’t know. Agency staff, trying to reshape my opinion, has two choices. They can add to my unknowns – that is, shortening staff reports, summarizing proposals, leaving the details out – or they can add to my knowns – which means reaching out and explaining the background, meaning, and implications of their proposals.

I imagine staff’s temptation to gloss over the ERN might have been great. We were sifting through potentially volatile details, before a live audience charged with anxiety. It would be expedient to keep things simple, streamline proceedings, and go home.

But instead staff walked us through the process step-by-step, happy to dig deeper into the minutiae with clarity and candor. They also provided representatives of the developer to field our questions and testify as to their own expectations for the intersection. By reaching out to us instead of shutting the door on us, staff recruited eleven more brains (the number of people on the commission) to the task of bringing that intersection back to life. In turn, commissioners were able to more clearly apply the community’s concerns to actual aspects of the proposal, registering discerning comments that would later inform staff’s negotiations with the developer.

In the end, the meeting concluded with a better product than what often occurs in local government. Through open dialogue and work, staff and commissioners appropriately tackled every dimension of the issue and arrived at, what we all believed, the most beneficial outcome: An agreement with a developer to discuss a project and a full vetting of what commissioners and residents want in a project.

Some of us still had concerns with particular aspects of the agreement, or hearsay about the developer’s plans. But those concerns were now refined, based not on vague apprehensions but on informed and articulated reasons that would later influence agency-developer negotiations. And when a project is finally approved, there will be no surprises.

In my eighteen months on the commission, experiences like this taught me the value of openness and reciprocal learning between a staff and its oversight body. Though systemically we are often placed at odds, it is when we work together that the system does its best work.

Josh Rosa is a Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commissioner