Ad hoc committees can be to local government what the punt is to football: kicking the ball downfield and allowing the defense to take over.
Making the ad hoc committee play is a too familiar call from some in Town leadership when they feel compelled to Monday-morning quarterback and issue they may have fumbled.
While committees—ad hoc or otherwise—can be used as a way to increase community input or examine an issue, they are equally a way to divert the responsibility of decision making to a group rather than an individual and steer an outcome without leaving footprints on the field.
Sometimes leaders call the committee play when there is controversy and the avoidance of personal accountability is the goal. While one can’t fault officials for making decisions to protect themselves from being sacked, too many committees can result in unnecessary confusion, regulatory complexity, a lack of transparency and accountability and ultimately, less than ideal decisions.
Inspired by the debate that ensued regarding the to use amplified sound at Morton Field, the latest example of the committee play in Town is the soon-to-be-formed ad hoc Amplified Sound Committee.
Here is the Sports Illustrated version of the situation for those that missed it earlier this summer: The Reading Bulldogs baseball team applied to the Recreation Committee for, and was granted, a permit to use amplified sound to incorporate announcements and music—including the National Anthem—to add entertainment value to their games, as is customary in sports today. Some neighbors of Morton Field, where the Bulldogs play, complained about the sound and petitioned the Board of Selectmen to rescind the team’s permit. The Board of Selectmen withdrew the permit, then after thoughtfully pausing to reconsider, reinstated the permit. Along the way, the Selectmen decided an ad hoc committee was required to study the issues surrounding the use of amplified sound in Town and determine how permits should be issued in the future.
The problem with this committee—like many such committees—is that it is simply unnecessary and essentially increases the work without increasing the value of the outcome.
The Town already has a standing committee that is responsible for managing the question of how amplified sound requests are addressed in town: it’s called the Recreation Committee.
If there is work to be done regarding the rules and regulations about the use of amplified sound, doesn’t it make sense to let the existing committee that reviews permits for the use of amplified sound do that work? Couldn’t the Recreation Committee address the same questions and interview the same proponents and opponents that the ad hoc committee could interview? Wouldn’t doing the work help make the Recreation Committee—a standing committee—better at their job of reviewing and handing out amplified sound permits?
In the Bulldogs case, the solution was simple: from the start the Town Manager could have advised the Selectmen to honor the valid permit which would have expired soon anyway and deferred the question of whether Town needs to update amplified sound permitting requirements, or even implement a noise ordinance like other towns, to the existing Recreation Committee.
Instead, there have been at least half a dozen meetings to decide the issue and establish a committee and a half a dozen more likely to come to tackle a question that community leaders across the state have successfully addressed since they started playing games at Fenway.
Reading already has an arguably absurd number of boards, committees and commissions given the population and size of our town, diluting the contribution of our limited corps of volunteers and the ability of the community to focus energy on the most important issues facing the Town. As the ad hoc Committee on Amplified Sound is poised to join the list, one can only hope Town realizes that while it’s perfectly acceptable to punt now and then, when it's done too often it's hard to win the game. And, that can cause the fans watching the game to quickly lose patience with their team.