A “manageable, comprehensive roadmap” for the next 20 months was the goal of a March 18-19 Oberlin city council retreat at Mercy Allen Hospital.
Council members polled themselves on their top priorities. How to spend about $2.6 million in Renewable Energy Credits was voted the top priority.
The credits, which represent property rights to renewable energy sources, are part of efforts to make Oberlin free of fossil fuel for energy generation by 2050.
Council has to decide whether to invest the REC profits in improving energy efficiency, rebating customers’ bills, or a combination of the two.
Other priorities included better housing and parking, improved relations with Oberlin College, hiring a new city manager, more economic development, and progress in the Underground Railroad Center project.
Before setting priorities, Columbus-based consultant and retreat facilitator Maggie Lewis focused members on their vision for best serving constituents and working well together. Council, in which members serve a maximum of five consecutive two-year terms, includes a blend of veteran lawmakers and newcomers.
Council president Ronnie Rimbert is the longest-serving member. He first took office in 1999 and rejoined council in 2014.
Sharon Soucy, who sat out 2008-09, took office in 2006. Scott Broadwell joined in 2008, Bryan Burgess in 2012, and Linda Pearson in 2014. Council vice president Linda Slocum and Kelley Singleton joined in January.
Council members vowed to show empathy and respect to one another while having robust debates. “Sometimes respect means, ‘Shut your mouth and let someone else talk,’” said Rimbert, who promised to try to keep all members involved.
Pearson said parlimentary procedures and workload can be overwhelming for new council members and training is important. While much of the nature of council is reactive, such as responding to constituent complaints or state budget cuts, Burgess said council needs to be proactive when possible.
Regarding RECs, council members hope to decide on spending by year’s end. Another top priority is Oberlin College.
Burgess and Singleton spoke of the need for the college — which had an $814 million endowment last year, up from $808 million in 2014 — to better compensate the city for municipal services. The city, which has a roughly $9 million general fund budget, has been hurt by state tax cuts and slashed state taxpayer aid to local governments.
Singleton said the college, which owns about 47 percent of the property in Oberlin, needs to pay for city services.
“Yes, back in 1833 we wouldn’t have existed without the college, but things are different now,” he said. “Our property taxpayers are hurting because the pie is too small.”
Burgess said council should lobby the student senate for support. “If we go to the administration, we just get a smokescreen,” he said.
Regarding economic development, Pearson said the city needs to be better in recruiting and retaining businesses. However Rimbert said there needs to be clear and strong regulations.
Rimbert said he expects a new city manager to be hired by the end of the year.
Eric Norenberg, hired in 2007, quit in December. The departure came after a letter in January of last year from Burgess, Pearson and then-council members Elizabeth Meadows and Kristin Peterson accusing him of poor leadership and requesting his resignation.
Council members stressed that while the issues listed are top priorities, they will also focus on other issues.
They include the fight against construction of the proposed NEXUS underground natural gas pipeline through Oberlin, ensuring the college’s Gateway Convention Center project is completed on schedule, and increasing hiring of minorities for city worker jobs and projects.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Evan Goodenow | Oberlin News-Tribune Facilitator Maggie Lewis speaks to interim city manager Sal Talarico and Oberlin city council members during a two-day retreat where strategy for the coming year was discussed.