The City Commissioner, An Often Overlooked But Influential Force in Local Government

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Newport Beach city hall on Dec. 17, 2020.

Don’t count them out just yet.

As freshly-elected city councils take root across Orange County this month, many decisions will be made about who will serve on their local subcommittees and commissions.

Such panels are a standard feature for cities, composed of residents who are appointed by council members, and are largely advisory in nature on certain policies and legislative decisions.

Still, city commissioners can be some of the most influential forces in local government.

Consider Santa Ana, where the Planning Commission may have set future residents and their children on a different course — pushing a vote on the city’s long term development and open space goals over the next few decades out of an outgoing City Council’s hands, and into the hands of a newer, younger City Council sworn in this month.

Or Newport Beach, where aviation committee members played a role in pushing the county Board of Supervisors to — at least partly — adjust their private jet expansion plans for John Wayne Airport this year, aimed at reducing the noise and air pollution over nearby homes.

“I’d say there is a lot of work and no glory. City commissioners are under-appreciated,” said Fred Smoller, a political science professor and local government expert at Chapman University. 

Commissioners don’t run for public office, he points out, therefore people don’t know them by any public campaigns. “They can sometimes be under the radar.”

But where elected city councils tend to be “generalist” on the range of policy issues they preside over, Smoller said many people serving on city commissions, which focus on specific topics like design review, parks or planning, “generally have expertise in those areas.” 

Such committees’ policy recommendations can even foreshadow the higher-up, final decisions on such matters by the like-minded council members who appointed them.

And in some cases, commissions also offer interest groups a direct line to getting their preferred people into local government.

In Santa Ana, for example, the local Chamber of Commerce this month nominated Janelle McLoughlin to the Environmental and Transportation Advisory Commission as the group’s representative.

City commissioners, through their policy recommendations or actions, can have direct impacts on residents’ quality of life.

Meet Newport Beach Finance Commissioner Joseph Stapleton, appointed to the board in 2017 due to his experience owning a wealth management firm, who before that also served on the city’s Harbor Commission.

Courtesy of Joseph Stapleton

Joseph Stapleton, a Newport Beach Finance Commissioner and former harbor commissioner.

One of the biggest projects during his time on that board, he said, was the commission’s removal of derelict boats that were deemed unfit for the water or at risk of sinking or fuel spills. In total, he recalled the commission removing more than 20 vessels.

He said the commission also secured grant funding from the state to help people salvage their boats, and that the program continues today.

Stapleton, who’s 36, said commissions also offer young people a path into their local governments. From this idea, he said he started the Newport Beach Foundation with the goal of getting younger residents onto these panels.

“Back in the day, there weren’t a lot of young people on the commissions — you’re talking about influential decisions being made here — and most of the people on those boards weren’t going to be around when the impacts are felt,” he said. 

Commissions can also be “the entry way for people who eventually become city council members,” Smoller said.

“A training ground” of sorts, he added. “You essentially get to try yourself out, and other people get to see you in operation, and you get a basis to run for city council.”

Some examples of this include Costa Mesa Councilwoman Arlis Reynolds, who served on the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission prior to her election, and Santa Ana’s first Vietnamese American city council member, Thai Viet Phan, who served on the city’s Planning Commission.

Santa Ana’s commissions also paved the way for undocumented residents to have more of a say over city government — starting with Carlos Perea.

An immigrants’ rights advocate, Perea became the first undocumented citizen to serve on a citywide commission. He sits on a city watchdog panel overseeing Santa Ana’s use of increased sales tax money.

But just as commissioners can grow in importance, their influence can be taken away, Smoller said.  

“Commissioners are often at the behest of the city council. The council controls who gets nominated, they can choose to ignore their commissioners’ recommendations, they can choose to override them,” he said. “They don’t have direct legislative authority. They can be overridden.”

They can also become engines of controversy.

A Dana Point fiscal watchdog committee became the focus of political contention in 2018, when council members fought for control over who in the city could hold them accountable for their spending choices. 

In San Clemente, a Coastal Committee member named John McGuigan resigned this year, claiming the higher-up City Council was either neglecting or flat out uninterested in the committee’s work. 

The board he sat on is advisory by nature, but sets recommendations for the beaches’ recreational and economic resources while also grappling with the city’s longstanding concerns over dramatic beach sand loss and urban water runoff’s impacts to water quality.

In Westminster last year, two majority faction city council members — Kimberly Ho and Charlie Nguyen — were accused of nepotism over their appointments of their children to a set of different city committees. 

Critics who called them out accused them of consolidating their control over the city’s different branches of policy making, while Ho and Nguyen defended their children’s appointments by saying they were grown adults capable of making decisions on their own.

In the end, Smoller said city commissioners “add vitality” to local government — an “extra set of eyes:”

“People gravitate to these positions, generally, because they’re experts in the field, and they want to give back to the community.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.