Cedar Rapids parks director wants to merge oversight commissions

Plan would combline Parks and Recreation Commission, River Recreation Commission

Rick Smith
Published: April 2 2014 | 7:07 am - Updated: 7 April 2014 | 3:04 pm in

Finding citizens to volunteer for the long list of city boards and commissions is always a challenge, City Council members never tire of saying.

But don’t tell that to members of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission and the city’s River Recreation Commission.

Sven Leff, the city’s parks and recreation director, brought together members of the two commissions that make recommendations to his department late Tuesday afternoon to gently suggest that he wants to merge the two commissions into one, called the Parks, Waterways and Recreation Commission.

Twelve of the 15 current members of the two commissions attended, and not one expressed an interest in not being on their current commission or not being on a merged commission if it comes to that.

Leff, who took over the department a year ago, said the current two-commission setup in simple terms splits the department’s mission between land issues and water issues at a time when he said the department needs a "unified," "big-picture" perspective as it takes on issues like the emerging riverfront greenway, which has both land and water elements to it.

Tom Furnish Jr., veteran chairman of the River Recreation Commission, said four of the seven members of the commission have decades of experience with river issues, and he said a merged commission should make sure it doesn’t lose that. Furnish said was "down the middle" on the merger idea.

Longtime Parks and Recreation Commission member Ron Gonder wondered if a merged commission could get all the work done it needs to do without overly long meetings.

Leff said a merged committee could have subcommittees or ad hoc committees to do some work and present it to the merged committee.

Barb Hannon, who is interested in aquatics as a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, asked River Recreation Commission members what they focus on only to discover that they’ve been working on a change in a city ordinance to permit swimming in a cove of the Cedar River. She said she wanted to know more about that, which seemed to make Leff’s point that the two existing commissions could benefit by being one, not two.

City Council member Susie Weinacht, who dropped off the Parks and Recreation Commission in January when she became a council member, is now the council liaison to the department’s two existing commissions. She said she heard a consensus start to emerge at Thursday’s meeting that one, merged commission had more positives, than negatives.

"I think you’re stronger together," Weinacht said.

Leff said that only two of the 15 current members of the two commissions have terms that extend beyond June 30, which makes it a good time to discuss the need for "organized leadership" to "chart a new course" for the department. Some current commission members are serving beyond their expiration dates, and Weinacht’s commission position is vacant.

Leff said he wants all whose terms have expired or will in June to reapply. The current River Recreation Commission, which has focused on issues at the Ellis boat harbor, is comprised of six men and one woman and needs a better gender balance, he said.

Leff said he did not want to "ramrod" his way to one, merged commission. So both existing commission will discuss the proposal at each’s upcoming meeting in the next couple of weeks.

Leff said he initially thought a new Parks, Waterways and Recreation Commission might consist of nine members, but some existing commissioners said 11 or 13 might be better. And by meeting's end, Leff was talking bigger numbers than nine. A city ordinance now specifies that the commissions have representatives who focus on certain specified areas, including recreation, aquatics, golf and the Ellis harbor.

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