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Manatee County commissioners decline to appoint library board volunteers

Written by on Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Van Ostenbridge wants more ‘like-minded’ applicants.

By Dawn Kitterman

The Bradenton Times

BRADENTON — Despite several citizens volunteering to fill the county’s Library Advisory Board openings, Manatee County commissioners voted 6-1 during a Tuesday meeting to “table” appointments and re-advertise for additional applicants.

The Library Advisory Board is one of more than a dozen citizen advisory boards or committees that rely on Manatee County volunteers. Serving on an advisory board offers residents the opportunity to help guide the county government’s decision-making process. Volunteer appointees are determined through an application process, followed by a nomination and final appointment by a vote of county commissioners.

Citizen advisory boards cover a range of topics, including affordable housing, children’s services, the environment, historical preservation, and more. The primary function of the county’s Library Advisory Board is to advise county commissioners on matters pertaining to the public library system and policy and to assist the board in providing and improving library services throughout the county.

In April last year, commissioners voted to add four seats to the Library Advisory Board, for a total of nine. The approved expansion was a compromise to a prior suggestion brought by District 2 Commissioner Amanda Ballard who proposed the board approve the creation of a second citizen’s library advisory board.

County Ordinance 23-105, which officially expanded the advisory board, was adopted in October. The following month, the newly created seats — plus two existing seats ending their terms — were advertised. Per the county’s instruction, residents were asked to submit qualified applications by Dec. 20, to be considered for appointment by commissioners.

The selection and appointment of applicants was scheduled for Tuesday’s meeting, but at the item’s opening, Commissioner Ballard raised a concern about the applicant pool.

“We do have several applicants for a couple of the seats, but I do think it’s unfortunate that for a couple of the seats we only have one applicant”, Ballard said before suggesting commissioners consider “re-opening” the application period, to “see if we get more than one applicant for some of the new seats.”

Based on the application matrix attached to the meeting’s agenda, two of the newly created seats had three or more applicants, while two had just one. The resumes submitted by each applicant appear to show that all applicants for any available position met, or far exceeded, the requirements for the seat.

During a commission meeting earlier this month, Commissioner George Kruse proposed commissioners consider expanding the number of citizen advisory boards to cover more topics and to provide more opportunities for citizen input in the local process. However, Kruse found little support from his colleagues, who largely dismissed the idea due to an existing inability to attain qualified and interested applicants.

In response to Kruse’s proposal, Commissioner Mike Rahn said in part, “My concern is we put these things out there, and then some of them don’t even get recognized or filled.”

Echoing Rahn’s concern, Ballard added, “I hesitate to open up new (advisory) boards when we’re having difficulty filling the ones that are available for our citizens currently to serve on.”

Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge also weighed in during the last meeting, agreeing that the county was having trouble “getting full participation” on some of its citizen advisory boards.

Two of the applicants for the Library Advisory Board before commissioners on Tuesday were current board members seeking reappointment. Each of the two applicants maintained a greater than 90 percent meeting attendance and board participation rate during their previous four-year appointment — with one applicant maintaining a 98 percent participation in the board.

But on Tuesday, Van Ostenbridge seemed less concerned about participation.

While participating in the county commission meeting by phone, Van Ostenbridge said, “I just want to say that I am not particularly satisfied with the applicants on the list.”

Van Ostenbridge followed his remarks by supporting Ballard’s suggestion and motioned that the board direct staff to re-advertise the openings and seek additional applicants. Commissioner Jason Bearden seconded the motion.

In considering support of Van Ostenbridge’s motion, Commissioner Ray Turner sought the expertise of the county’s Library Services Manager Tammy Parrott. In response to Turner’s request for deeper insight, Parrott offered that in her years of experience overseeing the applicant process for the Library Advisory Board, this year was notable.

“This is the most robust application pool I have seen since I started working at the county,” Parrott answered. “I was very pleased with the response.”

In addition, Parrott offered, “The current board is set to expire at the end of January and the new board was to be seated in February in order to begin its work.”

Following up, Turner asked Parrott whether she was satisfied with the applicants who applied to the openings. In response, Parrott offered that while she did not know any of the individuals personally, after reviewing their applications, she was satisfied that they were qualified to fill the roles.

Then, directing his inquiry to Van Ostenbridge, Turner asked his fellow commissioner to elaborate on what specifically he was “unsatisfied” with concerning the applicant pool before the board.

Van Ostenbridge answered, “I don’t see very many individuals on this list who are like-minded with this board.”

The county attorney advised commissioners that by delaying the appointment of citizens to the Library Advisory Board, the unfilled five seats will render the board without a majority, or quorum. An advisory board would be unable to meet or conduct business without a quorum. The Library Advisory Board’s annual meeting is designated to be held in February each year.

But Van Ostenbridge was not swayed by the risk of an inactive or suspended advisory board. “I’d rather the board not meet at all than to have a board that is going to meet and make decisions that are not in line with this county commission,” he suggested.

By their nature, advisory boards do not set policy or “make decisions” as Van Ostenbridge implied. Citizen advisory boards are intended to assist commissioners by bringing forward policy suggestions or lending non-policy support to public services.

Commissioner Kruse — who has grown accustomed to being on the losing side of several six-to-one votes in recent months—strongly disagreed with delaying the appointments.

“Let’s be honest,” Kruse began, “this was a better-advertised applicant process than almost every advisory board we have.”

Regardless of his acknowledging that the board was likely to “table” the appointments, Kruse suggested commissioners reconsider delaying appointments to all five of the seats and avoid rendering the advisory board without a quorum. Instead, Kruse suggested commissioners at a minimum approve the two reappointment applications.

But commissioners appeared unpersuaded by Kruse’s arguments. Commissioner Bearden added the final comments before the vote.

“The overall concerns on this board regarding this sensitive subject, ensuring that we have the proper people in place on this board because of the things that have happened these last few years regarding libraries,” Bearden began without elaborating on the “things” he was referring to. “I mean, it is what it is.”

“So, if commissioners are getting a check to take a step back to look at the applicants or to put it back on the street, I think that’s a smart move in regards to ensuring that we are moving our county in the right direction—the way that this board wants to do that, which is the majority of this board,” Bearden concluded his comments.

According to the citizens’ applications, of the 13 applicants, at least 10 had a bachelor’s degree. More than one had obtained their master’s, and at least one carried a PhD. The professional and educational experience of the applicants included a wide range of work experience and degree studies, including degrees in education, business, economics, library study, and law. Nearly all of the applicants had prior experience serving on citizen advisory boards or volunteering within their communities.

To review the applications and resumes, click here.

In the end, commissioners voted to approve re-advertising the Library Advisory Board positions, with only Kruse dissenting. No information was provided during or following the vote as to when the re-advertisement will begin, what the extended deadline for application submission will be, or when the commissioners might again revisit filling open seats on the Library Advisory Board.

Click here to replay this portion of the Jan. 23, 2024 Manatee County BOCC regular meeting.

 

This article first appeared in The Bradenton Times. To read the original version, click here.