Proposed changes to Rochester's home-rule charter have park and library board members concerned their ability to quickly respond to community needs could be diminished.
The proposal, which stems from a nearly two-year discussion, would alter the roles of the two city boards as they are defined in the charter, which sets guidelines for local government operations.
It would eliminate the boards' oversight of department directors, well as direct decision-making powers, shifting responsibilities to the Rochester City Council.
“The goal altogether was to make these chapters read consistently between the two of them and to focus the roles of these boards on advisory, rather than operational,” charter commission member Jay Furst said of the proposed changes in two sections of the city charter.
Library board member Antinea Ascione said the proposed changes could dampen efforts that led to recent achievements by the Rochester Public Library.
“This would be adding an unnecessary additional layer of bureaucracy because right now we’re able to move a bit more quickly because it’s not going through the (Rochester) City Council and we’re able to make a decision,” she said.
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Fellow board member Stephanie Saathoff added that many of the board's decisions and contract approvals are minor, but productive.
“This just seems like it’s cutting us at the knees,” she said.
Charter Commission Chairman Fran Bradley said he doesn’t see the changes as that drastic. Rather, they’re an effort to align the two boards with advisory boards in the city.
Discussion about changing the nature of the two board stems from a letter sent to the commission in early 2019 by City Council President Randy Staver, a former charter commission member.
Staver suggested the commission look at how the boards are defined in the charter, citing questions about their authority to acquire and oversee property, which could add to city expenses.
After discussing the issue throughout much of 2019, John Eckerman, the commission’s vice chairman, proposed removing the two boards from the charter since their inclusion is unique.
“This would give it back to the city council to define how they would establish those (boards),” Bradley said at the time.
Several commission members cited concerns about the potential impact on city operations.
“It seems to me that if it ain’t broke, we don’t have to fix it, and it ain’t broke,” commission member Fred Suhler said in January.
He maintained that stance last month when Bradley, Eckerman and Furst presented proposed changes to the charter in an effort to maintain the boards but modify their levels of oversight.
The changes were developed between the January and November meetings, when full commission meetings were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Introduced as a topic for a potential commission vote during its Jan. 12 meeting, some commission members said the effort felt rushed amid canceled meetings.
“This is a rather drastic change,” commission member Ray Schmitz said, citing a desire to solicit more public input on the process.
Bradley met with the presidents of the park and library boards and solicited input, which resulted in a letter unanimously approved by the two boards.
“With appointed board members, not operating as a political entity, but rather as deeply engaged residents closely invested in the library and parks, we are directly influenced by the groups we represent,” the letter states in opposing the proposed charter changes. “Dissolving board powers would centralize decision making to just (the) City Council, minimizing opportunities residents have to influence and support our community and slowing progress.”
Linnea Archer, the park board president, said the letter’s intent is to let the Charter Commission know the value of the two boards’ ability can quickly act to address community needs
The charter commission will to return to the topic Jan. 12 and could vote on whether to recommend charter changes, but the discussion doesn’t necessarily end there.
Any change to the charter requires unanimous approval by the city council or a successful public vote.