Parks Commission set for major overhaul

February 28, 2013

By Christina Corrales-Toy

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The Newcastle Parks Commission is about to undergo a significant makeover, starting with a name change to the Community Activities Commission.

The Newcastle City Council passed a series of motions that promise to change the makeup of the commission, add a temporary council member liaison and redefine or clarify the group’s duties.

City staff members will now craft the changes into an ordinance and bring it back to the council for passage at its March 5 meeting.

In one of the more significant changes, two seats of the seven-member commission will be reserved for representatives from two of the city’s major volunteer groups. Newcastle Trails and the Newcastle Historical Society will each nominate a person from their organizations to serve on the commission.

“I think it’s an excellent idea. These are two groups with important interests,” Councilman Bill Erxleben said. “Giving these folks a high profile and having them be players, rather than observers, brings them into the city better.”

Mayor Rich Crispo spearheaded the effort to reconfigure the commission in an attempt to get more out of the group after its members’ attendance records showed too many absences.

At the council’s January retreat, council members suggested that Parks Commissioners were unhappy with the commission’s duties and the way it was utilized.

Frustration reached an all-time high when two commissioners walked out of the Feb. 13 Parks Commission meeting, according to Diane Lewis, the commission’s chairwoman.

“It was a very difficult meeting and I did not know how to control it,” she told the City Council.

That incident may have been one of the catalysts that prompted the council to add a temporary council member liaison to the Community Activities Commission, even though it was one of the more contested changes among the council.

The liaison, which has yet to be selected, would attend commission meetings, join the group as a nonvoting member and offer support.

“My reason for supporting this idea on a temporary basis is to see if there is additional help we can give to the commission and particularly to the chair,” Deputy Mayor Lisa Jensen said.

Erxleben said it was important for the new commission to get off to a good start and the liaison could help facilitate that.

“We need a success here, and the best way to get it is to have the liaison assigned, at least on a temporary basis, to make sure this new commission works,” he said.

Councilmen John Dulcich and Steve Buri opposed the change.

“When council members are liaisons they are representing the council, and there is a chance they will have an opinion that outweighs what the majority of the council might feel about a particular issue,” Buri said. “I think it also dilutes the staff role in staffing the commission.”

The council liaison position is meant to be more of an experiment, and is set to expire at year’s end.

There was a suggestion to “sunset” the Parks Commission as it stood, essentially eliminating it and its current commissioners. If former commissioners wished to serve on the new Community Activities Commission, they would have had to recommit and reapply for a position.

The proposition was shot down, though, for several reasons, including the timeline it would take to appoint new commissioners.

Lewis said she was optimistic that the changes would reinvigorate the commission.

“I think it’s good. I think it’s healthy,” she said. “I’ll be very curious to see how everything works through.”

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