Facing criticism over transparency, Rochester mayor suspends monthly dinner meetings
Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede is suspending the monthly city council dinners in response to concerns over a lack of transparency at the meetings.
In a memo sent Tuesday to members of the council, the mayor said dinner meetings will not be held in November and December. He suggested the issue be brought up for a vote when the new council is seated in January.
Brede said he is "not pleased to do so" but cited the current "atmosphere" as his reasoning for temporarily halting the dinner meetings. "I am deeply disappointed that some council members are publicly boycotting a valuable opportunity to discuss more fully council matters with city staff and each other in a setting that is more comfortable," he wrote.
Council member Nick Campion has not attended the meetings since this past May, citing "major transparency issues." Last week, he published an op-ed to the Med City Beat calling for an end to the decades-old practice.
"There is less public participation at the dinner meetings than at any other meeting we hold," said Campion. "I don’t know if secrecy is the intent, but it has become the by-product." He added: "Eliminating the dinner meetings sends a clear message to our community that we are committed to openness and that we value the participation of the people we serve."
Dinners meetings are held once a month between afternoon and evening meetings at different restaurants in Rochester. They are open to the public and funded by taxpayers. Council president Randy Staver stated at a forum in August that the meetings provide the council an opportunity to have informal talks on city business that will not be discussed at a regular meeting.
"There is distinct value, in my opinion, to gatherings like the dinner meetings," said Staver. "There's a business component, there's a social component, and I think in the end it allows all of us as council members to do a better job."
Staver's challenger for city council president, Sean Allen, is publicly opposed to the meetings, as is council member Michael Wojcik. In a blog post published Tuesday, Wojcik said he will "continue to 'boycott' every one of these meetings where no issue requiring my voice is discussed."
In regards to accessibility for the general public, Wojcik stated: "We may or may not be in an accessible location, the public may or may not be able to hear, locations may or may not be accessible to those who don’t drive. Further, forget about seeing an agenda ahead of the meeting."
The mayor acknowledged the city could "do a better job in making the location and size of seating area acceptable." However, he said the meetings allow staff and council members to get to know each other "on a more personal basis."
He wrote in the memo: "Nothing is 'secret.' 'Transparency,' an overused word in my opinion, is not avoided. In fact [the meetings] may be greater in hearing thoughts of staff and council members prior to the decision that may come later in the formal Council Meeting."
In response to a citizen complaint, the State Auditor's office is now reviewing the city's dinner meetings to see whether they violate open meeting laws. Brede, though, said he does not believe any laws are being violated.
He compared members boycotting the meetings to "pulling a Kaepernick," in reference to the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has knelt during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice in the U.S.
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(Cover photo: File / Canva)