With the city seeking applicants to serve on various voluntary boards and commissions, some residents who applied in the past said the process could be improved.
City Council appoints Harrisonburg residents to various panels to help conduct the business of the city, from advising on park facilities and development proposals to running the electric utility.
According to Michael Parks, the city’s director of communications, there are four seats vacant and 17 upcoming vacancies.
There is one open seat for the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, although in January, council received three applications for two open positions.
After council filled one of the seats, Mayor Deanna Reed recommended council leave the second seat open to encourage more applicants.
City resident Nathan Brustein filled out an application in December requesting to be a part of the HRHA.
“I’m interested in volunteering and trying to be of service, so I’ve been a little bit disappointed that I haven’t been picked to be on a board to help,” Brustein said in a Wednesday interview.
He said he reached out to the city “a while ago” and requested he be notified if any board or commission seats open up.
“A few weeks ago, they reached out to me saying there was a seat available for the Harrisonburg Redevelopment Housing Authority,” he said, adding that he responded to the city saying he is interested.
Brustein said he has not heard back since.
As part of the appointment process, interested residents must fill out an application and attach any additional information they feel qualifies them for the role.
Applications are reviewed by City Council. Residents can be appointed to more than one board or commission.
At council’s Jan. 22 meeting, after reviewing applicants for different boards and commissions, Councilman Sal Romero said it was difficult for him to choose the best people to serve when they fail to completely fill out their application.
Reed said in the meeting that council could consider disqualifying applicants who don’t completely fill out the form.
Reed and Romero could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Benjamin Fuller applied in December to be on the Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals.
Fuller said he had been wanting to get involved in the city but didn’t know how.
He said current Planning Commissioner Brent Finnegan told Fuller to be a part of the Citizens Academy.
Finnegan, who was reappointed this year for a second term on the commission, has also attended the Citizens Academy.
The Citizens Academy is an annual program that allows residents to visit with the 21 departments in the city government, which includes the school system, City Council, the circuit court and more.
“I was worried it was just this name-based personal thing where council picked people to serve based on who they know,” he said. “I wondered if there was really an opportunity where anyone could go for a board or commission.”
Although he thought the Citizens Academy was the most direct way in, it did not get him on the Planning Commission or Board of Zoning Appeals.
Fuller, who now serves on the HRHA, said City Council should give in-person interviews to get to know applicants.
Cathy Copeland, who had also applied in December to be on the Planning Commission this year, said she also supports in-person interviews.
“I thought the application itself was pretty straightforward but the selecting procedure — especially if there are multiple qualified applicants — it just didn’t seem like there was enough room for me,” she said. “I think there’s great value to an interview process.”
Copeland was referred to the commission by Planning Commissioner Deb Fitzgerald, according to her application.
Copeland said she also felt like she had good relationships with council members.
While she was disappointed in the outcome, she said it would be beneficial for council to suggest other panels applicants could apply for based on their strengths.
“The more ways we can get people to feel valued, the more likely residents will help Harrisonburg and continue to apply for these things,” she said.
Planning Commission has one upcoming vacancy. Chairman Henry Way’s term ends in December.
According to Parks, vacancies are also upcoming for the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, Harrisonburg Electric Commission, Transportation Safety and Advisory Commission, Economic Development Authority, Building Code Board of Appeals, Board of Equalization, and the Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee.
The Economic Development Advisory Committee, which now has six members, may consist of up to 12 members, according to the city’s website.
The Towing Advisory Board, which has not been formed yet, will consist of six members, according the city’s website.
City Councilman George Hirschmann said Wednesday that the application itself is productive, and it shouldn’t be a big deal if there’s minor information missing from an application.
“As long as there’s enough there and we know who they are and what they are wanting from the board or commission, we should easily be able to make those decisions,” he said.
He said many times council members base their decision on whether they know the person and think they would be a good fit.
“If there isn’t familiarity, we vote on the people we think is best and yeah, sometimes we know them personally,” he said, adding that he thinks in-person interviews could benefit the selection process.
He said he thinks the best option would be to allow applicants to request an interview if they want one.
“To those who have been hanging around [Harrisonburg] for awhile, we already have an idea of who they are and what they do, so interviews for those we may not know would help them catch up,” he said. “If they aren’t familiar with the council then it would be to their advantage to be able to introduce themselves.”
It would also benefit council, he added.
“It helps us because then we get to know decent people and if we don’t sit down and talk to them then we can’t know they are decent people,” he said. “So it really opens the door for everyone.”