An obscure city board set up to improve communication between Santa Rosa's neighborhoods and City Hall is having an identity crisis.

The 14-member Community Advisory Board was formed in 2003 to be the eyes and ears of the City Council in the community. But it hasn't always worked as advertised.

Council members have questioned the need for the board, which was instituted after voters in 2002 approved changes to the City Charter aimed at increasing diversity in city government.

Board members have also been confused about their role in city government. Are they representatives of their districts? Liaisons with the council? Or there to help neighborhoods organize?

And the public remains largely unaware of the Community Advisory Board, why it exists and how it operates.

"I'll be honest. I didn't know I had a Community Advisory Board," Chanate Road resident John Woodward told a joint session of the board and the City Council Tuesday.

The session was designed to clarify the board's mission and discuss ways of making it more effective.

But after 2 1/2 hours of discussion, plenty was said about the shortcomings of the board, but few concrete ideas emerged about how to fix them.

Council members Scott Bartley and John Sawyer emerged as two of the most vocal critics of the way the board operates today.

"We've never been able to get it to work the way we've wanted it to," Bartley said.

That's in part because of its top-down design, with council members appointing two members each from seven districts in the city. Bartley said that structure was "upside down." It should be more "diffuse" with neighborhood and community groups appointing people to a board that could have as many as 100 members, if necessary.

"Why don't we let the neighborhood decide who represents them?" Bartley asked.

Sawyer essentially asked why a board exists at all. He said he doesn't understand what it's for.

"My question is &‘What are we trying to fix?' And once we have that defined, then we can go about fixing that problem," Sawyer said.

Residents always seem to band together when an issue arises in their neighborhood, like they did several years ago against a developer who wanted to build a large number of homes in the Montgomery Village neighborhood beside the Carrillo Adobe, he said.

Sawyer said the structure of the board, referred to as CAB, is flawed because of the way the districts are formed. There are two members for each quadrant of the city: the northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest. The other three districts are the downtown, north of Highway 12 and south of Highway 12.

"I don't think that makes any sense," Sawyer said.

On that point, board chairwoman Tanya Narath agreed. She is one of two members for everyone north of Highway 12, which is half the city.

"So I should have some way of knowing what the whole north part of Santa Rosa thinks about an issue and then be able to pass that on to the City Council? I think it's ridiculous," Narath said.

For that reason, Narath said she sees herself more as a "facilitator" than a representative of her district.

Other board members agreed some clarification of their roles was in order.

"I feel that there continues to be a disconnect in understanding between much of the council and much of the CAB," said Dory Escobar.

Board member Lee Dibble said there was "almost a schizophrenia" over whether the board should be active all the time or only if there are issues.

Board member Julie Combs said she viewed comments about restructuring the board as a challenge to its existence, saying there was "a cloud hanging over CAB right now" and that members were "facing our demise."

But Mayor Ernesto Olivares said that was not his intent.

"I don't want CAB to go away. I think there is a lot we could do to make it more efficient and to make it part of our community," he said.

The board is seeking comment from the public on its mission at a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. today at the Utilities Operations Building, 35 Stony Point Road.

The City Council agreed to continue the discussion about the mission of the board at a future meeting.