Council makes move toward added transparency

January 9, 2019
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Micahael Wojcik

Like anybody with a New Year’s resolution, the Rochester City Council began its 2019 on Monday with a new commitment to present live video of all its meetings over the internet. Some council members are seeking even greater levels of transparency.

The council unanimously directed city staff to prepare a plan to eventually create a permanent video recording of every commission and board meeting.

“We’ve tried to do some of this in the past, and it hasn’t gotten done,” Council Member Michael Wojcik said, while suggesting the council embrace added transparency for city meetings.

Wojcik has repeatedly suggested such changes would be requested with the first meeting of 2019, after Mayor Ardell Brede and two council members — some of them opponents of his ideas — announced they would not seek re-election.

In 2017, Brede vetoed a plan to spend $25,000 on video equipment to record the council’s weekly committee of the whole meetings in room 104 of City Hall. The split council was unable to override the veto.

In his veto, Brede said he considered the term “transparent” to be overused.

Months later, when the council considered permanently moving its weekly informational meetings to council chambers to provide more room and recording ability, Council Member Ed Hruska suggested waiting until January, which delayed the move until he left office.

Changing times

On Monday, Wojcik said the new council appears ready to embrace even greater transparency.

“I heard some of the things our new colleagues said during their campaigns and things that were important to them, so I tried to give us a launching point that really dealt with the critical importance of transparency and some policies that will clearly communicate that transparency is one of the priorities of the city of Rochester going forward,” Wojcik said.

During the city’s first-ever inauguration event earlier in the day, Mayor Kim Norton voiced support for those ideas.

“We must provide a more transparent, inclusive and cohesive city government,” she said shortly after being sworn into office with council members Nick Campion, Patrick Keane and Shaun Palmer. “We all campaigned on variations of this topic, and you’ll see movement even tonight at the city council meeting to that end.”

Keane said he supported Monday’s proposal, but also noted he would be leery of voting to undo other actions taken by past councils.

“I view the decisions of the city council to be the law that I’m set to enforce and extend, and I hope that’s the feeling we have on the city council,” he said.

The direction approved Monday by the council calls for livestreaming of all meetings on the internet and archiving the recordings, as well as ensuring all meetings are held in handicap-accessible rooms with adequate seating.

Cost concerns

While they supported asking staff to develop a plan, some council members cited concerns about costs and implementation.

“I want to make sure we understand the price tag,” Council President Randy Staver said, noting board and commissions currently meet in a variety of settings.

Most board and commissions already make audio recordings of their meetings, but few create a video recording.

Council Member Mark Bilderback also noted that several groups meet at overlapping times.

Today, for example, the city’s park board, charter commission and energy commission are scheduled to meet at 4:30 p.m. in three different locations.

“If there are multiple nights where they are back to back or pushing each other, please make sure we can get the scheduling figured out so we can do this,” he said.

Norton said she’s already planning to review existing boards and commissions, which could help staff organize a plan for recording meetings.

She said the priority should be to start with the council and then move to key boards and commissions.

“I hope to work with administration in coming up with these recommendations,” she said.

City Administrator Steve Rymer said the process will take time. While the council has budgeted to livestream all its meetings this year, the goal of being able to video record meetings at a table may take time.

“We understand where the mayor and council would like to go,” he said. “We’ll work on a project plan that can get you there over time.”

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