HELENA — On Friday morning, dozens of people attended a listening session at the Montana Club, to give feedback on the city of Helena’s advisory boards.
The city announced the session as a way to get input on whether there could be greater efficiencies in the boards. Leaders said the Helena City Commission is looking for ways to maintain public involvement, but reduce duplication of work and improve communication. That could include consolidating some of the current boards.
However, many of the people in attendance were strongly against any changes to the current system.
Friday’s session focused on boards staffed by employees of Helena’s Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Department. They include the Helena Open Lands Management Advisory Committee, the City-County Parks Board and advisory boards for the Helena Civic Center and Bill Roberts Golf Course. Leaders estimated department staff spends about 30 to 60 hours a month working for those boards.
During the session, facilitator Deb Halliday of Halliday and Associates asked the public for ideas about specific aspects of the boards – like their role in the city, how to ensure they represent a diverse range of citizens and possible ways to address redundancies.
“Both in administrative meetings and the city commission meetings, the issues have arisen that are represented here in the different categories: efficiency, possible consolidation, staffing, ways to make the advisory boards have more direct input into things,” said City Commissioner Ed Noonan, who attended the meeting.
Many of the respondents argued there is no need for a change to the advisory boards. A number of current and former board members were on hand for the session.
“I think the current structure works very well,” said Peter Aspinwall, who chairs the golf course advisory board. “What we have are boards that are comprised of people who have long experience in the areas under which they serve. They bring a lot of experience, ideas and like-mindedness to these boards.”
Aspinwall said the responsibilities of the current boards don’t significantly overlap, and combining them could lead to losing some specific perspectives.
“I think you’ve got then people with different interests all trying to vie for the same level of attention, and I just think the efficiency would not be there,” he said.
Some in attendance were also critical of the process, and questioned why the issue was coming up now.
Noonan said he understood some people were concerned the commission had already reached a decision, but he said they haven’t made up their minds about any solution.
“I know personally I’m not invested in an answer as much as a process that will lead us to a good answer,” he said.
Halliday said she will collect all the feedback from Friday’s session and put it in a report to the city next week. City leaders said the timeline for possible next steps hasn’t been determined yet.
The city has also opened an online survey for the public to weigh in on advisory boards. It is available here.
Parks, recreation and open lands director Kristi Ponozzo said the online survey will likely remain open for several weeks.