Plenty of Seats Still Available

The Engineering Standards Review Committee conducts its September meeting. Boards, authorities and commissions  --  known as BACs  --  deal with a multitude of social, economic and other issues.
The Engineering Standards Review Committee conducts its September meeting. Boards, authorities and commissions -- known as BACs -- deal with a multitude of social, economic and other issues. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

Fairfax Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) has searched for more than a year for someone interested in serving on the county's Commission on Organ and Tissue Donation and Transplantation.

Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) has had no success in filling a seat on the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board. The same goes for Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), who has an opening on the Oversight Committee on Drinking and Driving.

Fairfax leaders frequently scramble for volunteers to fill vacancies on the county's sprawling network of boards, authorities and commissions -- BACs in official shorthand. There are currently 28 empty seats, according to county records, with an additional 17 due to open up at the end of this month.

Part of the reason for the empty seats is that Fairfax County loves BACs. It has more than 80 of them, covering issues from aging to zoning and from animal welfare to wetlands. It is the BAC king of Northern Virginia governments, outstripping Alexandria, which has 76, and the counties of Loudoun (50) and Arlington (36).

These advisory groups play a significant role in the county's civic and political culture, which pays constant tribute to the virtues of inclusiveness and participation. Supervisors use BACs to reward supporters. Recommendations from the panels can provide political cover in contentious policy debates. They provide forums for messy grass-roots disputes that would otherwise spill over onto the board.

"You haven't lived until you've gotten into the allocation of athletic fields," said Bulova, describing the role of the Athletic Council in brokering disputes over playing time and user fees.

BACs vary in power and influence. Panels such as the Park Authority, Planning Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals and the Library Board make important decisions on policies and services. Supervisors also appoint numerous representatives to regional bodies, such as the Northern Virginia Community College Board.

Other BACs offer ideas and advice to supervisors on a variety of narrowly drawn subjects. The 15-member Tree Commission, for example, meets the first Wednesday of each month to help the county promote tree conservation.

The 10-member Animal Services Advisory Commission, which has had an opening since February, convenes on the first Tuesday of the month to discuss ways to promote responsible pet ownership, reduce animal overpopulation and best run the county shelter. Members also have to volunteer at least 24 hours a year in some capacity for the county's Animal Services Division.

Some panels, such as the 10-member Advisory Social Services Board, which monitors social welfare programs, produce detailed and authoritative annual reports.

"If we saw something amiss, we'd bring it up and discuss it," said Robert Lee McCan, the board's former vice chairman, who resigned recently because he is moving out of the county.

Supervisors created the organ and tissue panel in 1994, after former chairman John F. "Jack" Herrity received a heart transplant. The 21-member panel promotes awareness of organ and tissue donation, with members attending health fairs and encouraging people to become donors. County officials think it is the only local government commission engaged in such work.

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