By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA –Oneonta’s third city manager, George Korthauer, retired from City Hall on Feb. 7.
A month later, on March 13, Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order 202 went into effect, declaring a state of emergency in New York State in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic threat.
In the past six months, Mayor Gary Herzig, under a City Charter that gives him largely ceremonial responsibilities, led the effort that kept in-community infections – not including SUNY Oneonta’s “large outbreak,” now ending – to an average of eight a month.
Given that the city man-ager’s $110,000 salary is about 4 percent of the tax levy, Herzig said, he intends to again revisit whether a city-manager form of government, as now constituted, is the best way to govern 14,000-population Oneonta.
He said he planned to start that conversation perhaps as soon at the Common Council’s Budget Committee meeting Wednesday, Sept. 16, but certainly soon after.
And he would like a decision by the end of the year, so savings and likely lower expenses could be reflected in the 2021 budget. (This year’s budget is slightly more than $17 million.)
“I still support having an administrative position supervising day-to-day operations – a staff person, a non-political person,” he said, perhaps an executive director instead of a full-fledged city manager.
Herzig took charge from the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, but in the past month, with the community worried about the colleges reopening, he racheted up police enforcement of mask wearing and social distancing in public places, cancelled evening bus service from the campuses, and issued a “Welcome to Students” letter outlining expectations.
When widespread partying was evident when students returned Aug. 21, he alerted the Governor’s Office, setting the stage for what happened when the “large outbreak” followed: Chancellor Jim Malatras shut the campus for two weeks, and Cuomo deployed a state Virus Testing SWAT Team to the city.
In an interview Monday, Sept. 14, the mayor said, “I didn’t do this all by myself.”
“Our department heads just were amazing in the way they stepped up and provided leadership,” he said. “That was the only way to move through this crisis – and they did it. They filled the leadership void as a team.”
Personnel Director Katie Böttger and City Engineer Greg Mattice assumed day-to-day management, directing the department-head team, he added.
When it was approved on Nov. 7, 2010, the idea of professional management of City Hall won by a 1,177-370 margin. But one decade and three city managers later, dramatic change for the better hasn’t been evident.
“I was an early supporter and still support the concept of having an administrative position supervising the day-to-day operation of the city,” said Herzig.
“But I think the overwhelming number of people in Oneonta who voted to support it, including myself, didn’t recognize it would drastically change our form of government.”
Under the council-manager form of government, Council members’ role is limited to “just being legislators,” he continued. “They are asked not to participate providing input on local government operations.”
There are day-to-day decisions Council members should help make, he said: “What roads are being fixed. How staffing is organized. What priorities are set operationally. In a community this size, most people would want their elected Council members to be involved.”
As for his job, “whether the people want a ceremonial mayor going forward, or a mayor who has the ability to set direction and in control of of city operations, is an open question.” He said he hasn’t decided whether to run for a third two-year term next year.
Herzig said he’s intrigued with combining day-to-day administration with another existing function – with finance or personnel, for instance. “I believe Cortland has been very successful doing that,” he said.
Since six of the eight Council members had only served two months before “we went into Zoom … They haven’t had the opportunity to really dig into this.”
“In the next week or two,” he said, “I’ll look for opportunities for a whole discussion with Council members around where we are now, and what are the different options.”
The mayor expressed the view that a referendum is only necessary if powers are being taken away from elected officials; Herzig said they would be enhanced. “Changing the job description would not require a public vote as far as I know,” he said, in reference to the city manager’s job duties.
He said he would be guided by City Attorney David Merzig’s opinion. In 2016, charter revisions endorsed by a committee chaired by former Mayor John Nader foundered when SUNY New Paltz’s Gerald Benjamin, the state’s foremost expert on local government, said he believed those changes were substantive enough to require another public vote.