City may eliminate 2 advisory panels

Posted: January 16, 2013

The Winchester Star

Milt McInturff
John A. Willingham

WINCHESTER — City Council decided Tuesday night to adopt a new approach to appointing citizens to boards and commissions and eliminate two advisory panels.

By an 8-1 vote, the councilors asked city staff members to develop the amendments necessary to codify changes outlined in a proposal developed by Vice President John Willingham and Vice-Mayor Milt McInturff. The initiatives include eliminating the Tree Commission and the Natural Resources Advisory Board (NRAB).

Councilor Evan Clark voted against the measure.

“We’re looking for ways to improve the process,” City Manager Dale Iman said, “to make sure appointments are done in a more timely fashion.”

The dissolution of the Tree Commission and NRAB drew the most conversation and the only public input at the meeting. Any of their functions that need to be addressed would be shifted to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.

Patrick Farris, a former Tree Commission chairman and two-time candidate for City Council, said Winchester’s panel is the second oldest in Virginia.

“The Tree Commission is a buffer between the citizens at large and city government,” he said. “The Tree Commission since 1966 has dealt with that aspect of our streetscape.”

McInturff, himself a former Tree Commission chairman, said the primary function of the panel for years was deciding whether a city-owned tree should be left alone, trimmed or cut down. But in the mid-2000s, the city hired an arborist to make those decisions.

“The arborist goes out and makes a determination as a city employee and expert in the field,” he said. “If the arborist asks the Tree Commission for an opinion and they disagree, the arborist’s decision stands.”

As for the NRAB, McInturff said that body’s membership has dropped to one — Chairman David Worthington — and it hasn’t met in months.

“It was designed to be an advisory board at council’s will,” the vice-mayor said, “and it’s kind of taken on a life of its own.”

Clark, however, contended that he’s reached out to members of both boards for information and found its members helpful.

“I fear we may lose the opportunity to gather this information, at no cost to the city, from these volunteers,” he said. “If we do this, I think we should stay in touch with these folks, make sure that help is available.”

Other key changes, Iman said, include appointing a staff liaison to the remaining 34 advisory panels who will be responsible for communicating activities to council and having each board and commission member attend an orientation and agree in writing to adhere to the city’s Code of Ethics.

At Iman’s request, the councilors also clarified their intent in establishing funding of city schools as a top priority in the recently adopted strategic plan.

The Winchester School Board currently prepares a budget and brings it to City Council to see if the requested funding is approved. But Councilor Les Veach lobbied for establishing a funding formula, whereby a certain percentage of city revenues would be designated for schools.

Council President Jeffrey Buettner said that when he voted to make school funding a top priority, his thought was that it meant adequately funding the system to meet council goals. If the councilors want expansion of efforts like Career and Technical Education or science, technology, engineering and math programs, he reasoned, they need to provide the funds necessary to develop them.

The formula concept was voted down by a 7-2 vote, with Councilor Ben Weber joining Veach in support.

The councilors also received a report from the city’s outside auditor, Billy Robinson of the Harrisonburg office of BrownEdwards. He said the city’s accounting practices and financial position are strong.

Attending the meeting at Rouss City Hall were President Jeffrey Buettner, Mayor Elizabeth Minor, Vice President John Willingham, Vice-Mayor Milt McInturff and councilors Evan Clark, John Hill, John Tagnesi, Les Veach and Ben Weber.

— Contact Vic Bradshaw at vbradshaw@winchesterstar.com