A proposal to scale back the authority of Rochester’s park and library boards is headed to the Rochester City Council
The city’s Charter Commission voted 9-5 Tuesday to submit proposed changes to how the two boards are defined in the city’s home-rule charter, which sets guidelines for city operations.
“We feel they are kind of minor changes,” said Commission Vice Chairman John Eckerman, who was part of a committee that produced the proposal. “It’s not a major overhaul.”
The proposed changes would eliminate the boards’ oversight of department heads and shift fiscal responsibility to the city council, setting up the boards as advisory boards, rather than policy-making boards.
“It kind of matches up with other boards of the city,” Eckerman said.
Commission member Fred Suhler said the boards shouldn’t operate like others in the city.
Library operations, he said, should rise above the political discourse that can come into play with other city departments, and the park board has its own unique governance, which he pointed out city residents recently supported through a tax referendum.
“I guess I don’t see the reason why we need to make these changes,” he said, calling the proposal a “radical change.”
Larry Mortensen, who was recently appointed to the commission and had served eight years on the park board, said he believes the proposed changes reflect how that board operates, adding that he can’t comment on library operations.
He said the park board did play a role in hiring current parks and recreation director Paul Widman, but the city administrator is responsible for oversight of the position.
He also said the board has little control over spending without council approval.
“The park board never had any money other than what was budgeted by the city council,” he said.
Members of both boards unanimously approved a letter that was sent to the charter commission last month, stating concerns about the proposed changes.
“We feel the changes impede the ability to best serve the community with timely actions specific to the needs and interests of the library and parks,” the letter stated.
The letter also touted the boards’ abilities to provide connection to the community that might be missed by elected council members.
“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.
Commission member Kathy Meyerle said that section raised concern for her.
“If the makeup of these boards is people who have constituencies, they are going to be accountable to those constituencies,” she said. “They are not going to be accountable to the community as a whole.”
Commission member Kellie Mueller said the nature of the park and library boards make them more effective than other advisory boards. At the same time, she said they add a layer of responsiveness in the community.
“When you have boards and commissions that actually have some skin in the game and have some decision making, you end up with members of the community that are more engaged and care about what they are doing,” she said.
With the commission vote, the proposed changes are in the hands of the council. It requires a unanimous council vote to change the charter.
City Attorney Jason Loos said the issue could go to the council with a public hearing on Feb. 17.
If the council isn’t in full agreement, the commission can seek to have the issue put up for a public vote or make changes to the proposal and resubmit it to the council.