Should council members serve on private boards?
Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede has vetoed a city council motion that would have prevented council members from voting on issues related to private organizations for which they voluntarily serve on the board.
Last Wednesday night, the council voted 4-3 to curtail voting privileges for council members who serve on boards for any of the five private organizations that receive significant public funding: the Rochester Art Center, the Rochester Civic Theatre, 125 Live, the Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Rochester Downtown Alliance.
The move was designed to limit conflicts of interests for council members. Often, elected officials who serve on private boards are given access to information not made available to the general public.
However, in vetoing the action, Mayor Brede — now in his fourth and final term — said he sees no conflict of interest in council members sitting and voting on various boards, noting the practice has been done for decades.
"The city has a vested interest in these [boards] and should be able to voice opinions and vote on matters that ultimately may come to the council for action," said Brede. (You can read the full memo here.)
Council Member Nick Campion, who introduced the motion, was quick to criticize the mayor's veto. Speaking by phone Tuesday, Campion said a council member's obligation should be to represent the interests of the public, not a private organization.
"Conflicts of interest should be taken seriously," Campion wrote on Facebook. "The Mayor seems adamant to continue his reckless treatment of objectionable behavior. Make no mistake, this veto encourages conflicted voting and limits the public’s ability to oversee millions of tax dollars. I voted to expand oversight and believe our residents should expect better."
Unlike public boards that council members sit on, such as Rochester Public Utilities or Destination Medical Center, private board meetings are not open to the public. That means decisions are made behind closed doors, and things like agendas and meeting minutes are not posted publicly.
"Taxpayers deserve better than that in terms of oversight," said Campion.
Campion recommended the council create an oversight committee tasked with reviewing funding requests from private organizations. Doing so, he said, would ensure each council member has access to the same information.
The mayor, however, called the idea "redundant."
"My suggestion would be that, perhaps, at a Committee of the Whole meeting there would be time set aside for council members to update the remainder of the Council on matters relative to the agency they are assigned," said Brede, referring to the more informal council meetings held Monday afternoons at City Hall.
Asked about the mayor's suggestion, Campion said it "does nothing to address concerns about what is happening on private boards."
Over the past year, financial issues with the Rochester Civic Theatre and Rochester Art Center have raised concerns about the city's oversight of the organizations. Both are housed in publicly-owned facilities and receive hundreds of thousand of dollars in annual contributions from the city. Concerns have also been raised by some council members about the RCVB's efforts to finance a proposed $58 million downtown arena.
Overturning the mayor's veto would require five of seven votes. The original motion passed with four votes, with Council President Randy Staver joining Council Members Mark Hickey and Ed Hruska in voting against the action.
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