BoA ponders term limit enforcement for boards and commissions

Photo by John Flynn

Thursday, January 26, 2023 by Jonathan Lee

As the new mayor and City Council members settle into their roles, one task is appointing dozens of volunteers to serve on boards and commissions. A discussion earlier this month at the Board of Adjustment highlighted some challenges involved in appointing and retaining volunteer members.

At the board’s Jan. 9 meeting, members discussed how enforcement of term limits might change with the new Council and what that could mean as some bodies struggle to attract volunteers.

While city ​​code mandates that members serve for no more than nine consecutive years on the same board or commission, enforcement of the rule has been lax. Some volunteers have served for far longer, including Board of Adjustment Member Michael Von Ohlen.

“Historically, you were just on there from cradle to coffin,” said Von Ohlen, who has been on the BoA for 16 years.

Members seemed to be caught slightly off guard by an email from the board’s attorney saying term limits would be enforced going forward. But that may turn out not to be the case, with Council considering waiving the term limit requirement, according to board members.

While enforcing term limits could allow more diverse perspectives and new ideas, Von Ohlen said that the expertise gained over years of service is also important.

“When you have that type of turnover, you lose the historical context, the information and experience of where the city has been and what it has taken us to get here,” Von Ohlen said. Lots of turnover means “you’re reinventing the wheel over and over.”

Chair Jessica Cohen competed. “Coming from a completely non-land use-oriented background, this was a very steep learning curve for me when I first joined the board. Like it was painful. I had to study,” she said.

Enforcing term limits could also make it harder to fill seats – a long-standing problem, especially for more niche boards or those that cover esoteric topics, such as the Board of Adjustment.

Cohen ended a discussion with a plea to the audience: “Don’t be scared, the six of you watching tonight. Don’t be scared – go to austintexas.gov and apply for the Board of Adjustment.”

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