Conference room

Photo: Benjamin Child, Unsplash

The roles of Rochester’s park, library and utility boards have been the subject of discussion in recent months, and the conversation regarding possible tweaks is set to continue Tuesday.

“With the size and the responsibilities of these three groups, to not have an elected person or elected council involved in those decisions, it doesn’t seem like representative democracy,” Rochester Charter Commission Member Ray Schmitz said as the commission initially tackled the topic in September.

The three boards are defined in the city’s charter, a foundational document that outlines how much of city government operates.

As defined, the three boards have greater powers than the city’s advisory boards do. The charter boards establish policies and approve budgets for the city entities they represent, although the Rochester City Council establishes spending limits.

The Charter Commission has appeared split on whether a change is needed, but the majority of members agreed it is worthy of discussion. That discussion is now slated as part of the commission’s next meeting, 4:30 p.m. Tuesday in room 320 of City Hall, 201 Fourth St. SE.

'Historical artifact'?

The conversation started with a letter City Council President Randy Staver sent to the commission earlier this year, asking the group to reconsider the roles of the three boards.

“I want to stress that I am not implying in any way that the current oversight as provided by the charter is an issue,” Staver wrote. “I have a great deal of respect for the individuals sitting on the boards and the work they undertake. Rather, my questions arise from whether the charter boards are simply a historical artifact.”

The Charter Commission opted to focus largely on the library and park boards, noting the Rochester Public Utility Board requires a City Council member as one of its five members, providing some direct elected oversight.

Presidents of the library and park boards said the level of policy and spending control held by the boards help them ensure the operations of the two city departments are responsive to emerging needs.

“Most of (our decisions) have time constraints,” Library Board President Stephanie Saathoff said.

Additionally, Park Board President Vern Yetzer said the complexity of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department means stripping board authorities could introduce a new burden for the City Council. The board’s monthly meetings often exceed two hours with discussions of specific policies in the park system.

“I think all the (park-related) stuff would be swept to the side,” Yetzer said, noting the council is focused on a much wider array on city operations.

Council Member Shaun Palmer, however, said the Park Board specifically needs clearer direction or oversight.

“They don’t know who they represent,” he said during a recent council work session. “They don’t report to anyone.”

“The park department likes to run them and tell them what policies they should follow, and I find that to be difficult,” he said, noting his observations come from attending Park Board meetings.

Lines of communication

Nick Campion said he and his fellow council members often lack such insights into the happenings on many of the city’s boards or commissions.

“All these boards are operating generally with the oversight of the council members who show up and witness what happens,” he said, noting that many board don’t see regular council member visits.

He suggested the council needs to provide clearer guidelines for expectations of each city board and commission, both charter boards and advisory boards and commissions. 

Charter Commission members suggested the problem could be remedied by adding a requirement that the park and library board include a City Council member, but cited a desire for more research into what is required by the local charter and what is defined in state statute.

The Library Board already includes a seat for an Olmsted County commissioner.

Wojcik said he believes some concerns could be addressed without a charter change -- a change that requires either unanimous approval by the City Council or a public vote.

‘I do like keeping these boards as charter boards; however, I think that some clarity on the roles of the boards is needed, because these positions are appointed, and overarching fiduciary responsibility needs to fall to elected officials,” he said.

Campion also said some added accountability is key.

“The accountability isn’t there the same way it is for us,” he said. “Every four years there is a referendum on whether I still have the confidence of my constituents, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true for the park board or the library board.”

Most board members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council.

Charter Board member Fred Suhler said that since the selection process includes the elected officials, board members are, by definition, accountable to the council.

Additionally, he noted the boards are only able to work with budget amounts approved by the council, which gives council members power over potential spending.

“If the council doesn’t give the library enough to do what it wants to do, it ain’t going to happen,” he said.

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