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Newly elected Rochester politicians promise more transparency

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Kim Norton takes the oath of office as Rochester's first female mayor.
Kim Norton takes the oath of office Monday to become Rochester's first female mayor.
Andew Link | Rochester Post-Bulletin

In a packed conference hall at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester Monday, former Democratic state Rep. Kim Norton became Mayor Kim Norton.

Norton is Rochester's first female mayor. The inauguration ceremony was a first as well. Rochester has never had an event like this and it was scheduled during the lunch hour deliberately so more members of the community could come.

The event was symbolic of one of her top goals for the office — more transparency and inclusion.

"We really do want the community to understand what we're doing, why we're doing it and to give us input," the mayor said. 

Norton said she's already planning listening sessions that will include City Council members and law enforcement in each of Rochester's wards over the summer.

In the past, Rochester city officials have been accused of doing too much behind closed doors. That included informal dinner meetings where City Council members would meet with former Mayor Ardell Brede and city staff to discuss city business. Those meetings ended in 2016 amid community outcry. 

The state auditor eventually determined that the monthly dinner outings had misused about $10,000 in taxpayer money and violated open meeting laws.

Norton said she thinks the demand for more transparency stems in part from the city's transformation under the Destination Medical Center economic development project. Millions in taxpayer dollars are being spent to move the project forward, and private developers are pouring money into the city to develop new condos and hotels.

"A lot of changes are coming and people are nervous, anxious, and they have ideas and thoughts about their community, and they want to be involved," Norton said.

New City Council members Patrick Keane and Shaun Palmer were both sworn in at the event as well. Palmer said he welcomes more community involvement.

"One of the things that I've learned from knocking on doors and talking to people is that people don't see the value in what the city gives them and they don't feel valued. And I want people to feel valued in the city of Rochester," he said.

Transparency and accountability are themes new employees at city hall have embraced already. Rochester's new city administrator Steve Rymer has implemented a new budgeting process that allows city officials to better plan yearly allocations. And for the first time this year the budget was released early and in digital form, making it accessible to more people. 

Rymer is also orchestrating an overhaul of the Mayo Civic Center's management. The center recently completed an $84 million renovation meant to attract more lucrative events. Demand for the space has fallen short of projections, which threatens to consume a growing portion of the city's lodging tax revenue. 

Monday night, the City Council will discuss a package of proposals backed by two sitting members aimed at making city meetings more accessible, too. The plan includes a requirement that all City Council and committee meetings be recorded, livestreamed and archived. Norton, Keane and Palmer said they are all likely to support those proposals.

Correction (Jan. 8, 2019): Steve Rymer's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.