Speaker: More transparency, access needed for city boards

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The “lack of government transparency,” particularly within certain departments of city government, was one of the topics of discussion during Wednesday’s Common Council meeting.

Bobbie O’Brien, president of the Rome Historical Society Board of Trustees and resident of Martin Drive, stated for the public comment period of the council meeting, that while government meetings have been hosted virtually throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the key to government operating properly is through “transparency,” and the public has not been given ample opportunity to get involved.

She said she felt that other departments, other than the city’s Common Council, are not following the same protocols that allow the public ample time to submit comments and participate in meetings, and called for the city to focus more efforts on open government.

O’Brien pointed out the challenges of having agendas for some city department meetings, including the Zoning and Planning boards, available online just 36 hours before a meeting, especially when members of the community must submit comments for public discussion 24 hours before the actual meeting.

There’s “a lack of transparency and access, and it doesn’t serve the public,” she said.

O’Brien continued to state that the Board of Estimate and Contract doesn’t post meeting minutes and there’s “no ability to easily access past meeting documentation. That leaves people scrambling on a Monday to submit their comments” by the deadline. She said, “The Zoning Board of Appeals provides no agenda documentation or information — a simple statement that they’re having a meeting is not enough to have members of the public get involved. Lack of transparency creates critical failure at the most important step. The public is at loss to address timely concerns or make alternate recommendations to things that seem to just get the green light going forward. The city has a responsibility to the community to do so (keep transparency) and enable open communication.”

O’Brien ended her comments by asking that all city departments follow and adhere to the same guidelines of the Common Council as far as making agendas available in a timely manner and allowing sufficient time for the public to submit comments or questions online.

During personal reports, Third Ward Councilor Kimberly Rogers thanked O’Brien for speaking, pointing out that government meetings are not receiving a good attendance during COVID-19, and that the RHS board president made some valid points.

Rogers said when looking at the Planning Board website it’s “loaded” with documents related to its meetings, and if items are tabled, they remain up on the site so people have time to review and offer feedback on them. But the councilwoman pointed out that often projects must go before the Zoning Board first.

“I understand during COVID it’s been harder to communicate even though we’re more used to it now (utilizing online forums), so the documents should 100 percent be up there” on the website, Rogers said. “My concern is that some people are seeing zoning projects in their neighborhood and they’re not receiving notification of it. I think it should be a requirement to notify people of big changes in their neighborhood, and there should be transparency there. We need to look into that.”

When City Clerk Jean Grande indicated that council meeting and Board of Estimate meeting agendas were being sent to media outlets and local officials, including the Chamber of Commerce, Rogers asked why agendas weren’t posted on the city’s Facebook page.

“Everyone lives and breathes Facebook today, and I think it would be a good idea to include that,” she said.

Rogers asked if the council had any authority to request that the Zoning and Planning boards “go by the same rules that we are,” and Corporation Counsel Gerard Feeney said, “The council could pass legislation of some kind to govern that, but in absence of it, it’s up to the chair of the board to set the parameters.”

Rogers agreed to put together some legislation on the matter and work with Chief Code Enforcement Officer Mark Domenico in posting meeting agendas in a timely manner for all the boards.

“We should be consistent. We shouldn’t have one board operating independently — not following the rules and not doing things as everyone else,” said Rogers. “It’s been mentioned that there’s a petition out there for the Erie Boulevard West property (purchased by Hoffman Development Corporation for use of a car wash). It went before the Zoning Board for a special use permit and no one commented on it — My guess is that probably no one ever knew about it.”

The petition addresses that the new car wash would result in the demolition of historic property — the West Rome School — that is warranted to be placed on the state Historic Register.

“The time to deal with that was when it went to zoning, not the Planning Board,” Rogers said. “We need to not play catch up, otherwise everyone looks bad.”

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