Municipal boards getting a closer look

illustration of a board meeting

If you have a question about what’s going on in Mt. Lebanon’s parks, it makes sense to contact the parks advisory board, right? If you have a question about Mt. Lebanon sports, take it up with the sports advisory board, sure. But what if your question is about people playing sports in the parks? Maybe that’s something to take up with the community relations board. We have a traffic board, for when vehicles are moving, but when they stop, they’re governed by the parking facility board. What we’re saying is, we have a lot of boards here. Current count is 10 advisory boards and five statutory boards.

At a 2019 retreat, the Mt. Lebanon Commission made advisory board realignment a priority. The following year’s pandemic reshuffled priorities a bit, but when Ward 5 Commissioner Andrew Flynn took his turn as Commission president last year, he renewed interest in taking a look at how the municipality manages its boards and authorities.

Planner and assistant manager Ian McMeans took a look at 12 western Pennsylvania communities similar to Mt. Lebanon, including Upper St. Clair, Bethel Park, Peters Township, Monroeville and Murrysville, and found the average number of advisory boards was two to three. Closest to Mt. Lebanon in number of boards is Monroeville, which has six.

Armed with that information, the Commission worked with municipal staff to reduce the number of advisory boards to five. The five statutory boards—boards a community is required by law to have—will remain. Those are the planning board, the zoning hearing board, construction code appeals board, civil service board and the library board of trustees. The others are due for some retooling, with the eye toward streamlining their organization.

“Government is a platform,” said Flynn. “It’s a mechanism for citizens to engage, but if it gets too unwieldy, it loses effectiveness.”

“Some boards were formed for a specific reason, in response to a specific need,” added McMeans, citing the formation of the sports advisory board during discussions about turfing some of the community’s athletic fields, and the environmental sustainability board, which was formed in response to Mt. Lebanon adopting a climate action plan.

Once that specific time frame passed, the boards remained, and sometimes new boards were created, which caused some confusion and some overlap.

“Some of the boards were formed in response to the needs of the community at the time, but in some cases the needs of the community have evolved,” Flynn said.

“As we started looking into this, we asked ‘What is the function of an advisory board?’” McMeans said. “Instead of combining boards, let’s start from scratch. Let’s reset to what would be the most effective structure.”

“You need to look at any organization every so often,” said Flynn, “like trimming some branches from a tree to keep it healthy.”

The plan is to eliminate the current advisory boards. An ordinance passed on February 28 creates five new advisory boards, combining functions of the current boards with new tasks and directives:

Civic Engagement  Recommends diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives; works to conciliate problems pertaining to community relations and citizens’ rights.

Mobility and Transportation Reviews, monitors and proposes policy changes regarding transportation, mobility and transit plans; traffic calming; school zone safety and anything related to streets, automobiles, pedestrians, bicycles and transit.

Parks and Recreation Makes recommendations to Commission and staff concerning parks, recreation  programming and planning, and funding priorities for parks and recreation capital improvements.

Community Sustainability and Economic Development Provides recommendations on preserving and improving Mt. Lebanon’s public facilities, infrastructure, economic prosperity, services and sense of place; reducing the environmental impact of municipal services and encouraging sustainable practices; encouraging the preservation of the community’s historic resources.

Financial Management Provides recommendations on fiscal policies, pension investments, financial reports and other monetary matters.

The transition to the new structure will occur on April 1, 2024. To prepare for the change, current advisory boards will compile lists of duties, tasks and functions, and assemble historical documents into digital storage. The Commission will then examine the current board responsibilities in light of how they can be applied to the five new boards. Applications for the new boards will be accepted starting in February 2024.

The realignment will also standardize the structure of the boards. Each board will have nine members, with three-year terms, with a turnover of three members every year. The boards will also have slots for associate members—non-voting representatives of relevant community organizations, the school district and members of other boards.

“Ian gave us a great framework,” Flynn said, “that allows for staff and Commission time to be spent more effectively, giving us more time to focus on the current needs of the community.”