The city’s park and recreation commission, created in 1935 through a charter amendment, would cease to exist if voters approve a proposal on the Nov. 5 ballot seeking its elimination.
“They’ve become more of a hindrance than a benefit,” said Councilman Paul Drennen, D-5th, chairman of council’s park and playground committee, of the commission.
But Nancy Walker- McCain, the commission’s vice chairwoman, says city council and the administration have “circumvented our work. We were sworn in and have a responsibility to uphold the law, which we have done. Council should play in the correct sandbox.”
There’s been long-standing tension between the commission, consisting of five unpaid members, and city council and the administration.
There was a flare-up in June when Mayor Charles Sammarone removed Terri Bryant from the commission for what he called “gross neglect of duty” because she missed some meetings. Bryant, Walker-McCain and other commission members said the decision was unfair as Bryant’s mother died before the December 2012 meeting, she missed a couple after that, there wasn’t a meeting in March 2013 and a meeting the following month was rescheduled to a date she couldn’t attend.
In September 2007, then-Mayor Jay Williams called for a state investigation into whether the commission had approved illegal legislation permitting its past and current members to use its facilities for free for life. The policy was rescinded. At the time, Williams said the option existed to disband the commission.
Instead his administration — with the support of city council — developed charter amendments, approved by voters in November 2007, that stripped the commission of its power to hire park employees except the director, and required all commission contracts and purchases to be approved by city council and the board of control.
“The commission hires the director, but we fund the park and recreation department,” Drennen said. “The park and recreation commission has no financial authority. It’s an advisory board. But it’s come to a point that the park and recreation commission is micromanaging the department and the director; pulling the director in different ways.”
The 2007 charter amendments gave council and the administration “a check and balance, not total control,” Walker-McCain said. “I don’t know why [council] would say we’re out of control. It’s political babbling and I won’t get into that.”
If the charter amendment is approved by voters, city council would probably put together a small group of park advisers that would meet three to four times a year, Drennen said. Also, the charter amendment would have the park director report directly to the mayor.
“Our current system is antiquated compared to other cities,” Drennen said.
“The commission represents the citizens of Youngstown,” Walker- McCain said. “City council and the administration already have enough to address. They don’t need to run the parks and recreation department.”
The commission has wanted to select a firm to develop a comprehensive plan for the city’s park system for about a year. Council authorized the commission in May to seek proposals, but not to spend any city money on a study.
Also, council members have said they are following the recommendation of last year’s charter-review committee to eliminate the commission.
That committee made 17 recommendations. Council put three on the November 2012 ballot along with a modified proposal regarding the redistricting of the city’s seven wards. All four amendments passed.
Council members said more than a year ago that other proposals would be on future ballots while some could be done through a change to council rules.
To date, the proposal to eliminate the park and recreation commission is the only other amendment recommendation from the committee to receive consideration by city council.