Maybe it’s apocryphal, but the story’s told of a former mayor of Oneonta who, elected decades ago, discovered some department heads were taking hour-and-a-half lunches to work out at a local gym.
The mayor gave everybody raises, at the same time advising the department heads: Game over, be back at your desks in an hour.
That worked for six months, then the particular department heads starting slipping, the story goes, and soon things were back to how they’d been at the outset.
If true, that underscores the need for a boss, on site, every day at City Hall – and at every other business, for that matter. The buck needs to stop somewhere.
That said, the City of Oneonta’s experience with the current city-manager system of government – next year it will be in place a decade – just hasn’t worked out as hoped.
So that Mayor Gary Herzig is again suggesting revisiting how City Hall governs itself – and
it’s effectiveness in general – is worthwhile, and timely.
The idea of an executive director, implementing mayoral and Common Council policies, makes sense. Pairing that job with, for instance, finance director (or the most apt department head) makes further sense.
As it happens, the third city manager in a decade, George Korthauer, retired last February, just a month before COVID-19 arrived, requiring extraordinary leadership, which Herzig provided – to no one’s surprise, really, given his almost four-year track record.
It’s the Curse of Competence – a job expands to the talents of the person holding it. (Or shrinks.) Even a city charter like Oneonta’s, calling for a “weak mayor” form of government, can’t keep a good person down.
Meanwhile, the Village of Cooperstown also professionalized its government, creating a village
administrator, but leaving the elected mayor and board of trustees assisted, but fully in charge.
Over the years, City Hall has been blessed with many such good persons. Or maybe it’s an Oneonta thing; the city is welcoming to newcomers and comfortable for natives.
There never seems to be a shortage of qualified people, wanting to give back.
It’s not just Herzig; there’s been a succession of capable mayors.
The mourned Dick Miller, a former corporate executive and Hartwick College president; John Nader, now SUNY Farmingdale president; Kim Muller, a SUNY administrator; the venerable David Brenner, a SUNY associate vice president and author, who also chaired the county Board of Representatives.
The trail of talent goes back to the 1960s, when Sam Nader, now 101, set the mold, gaining a statewide reputation for acumen, and bringing a New York Yankees farm team to Damaschke Field.
It can’t be an accident.
By contrast, the three city managers to date just didn’t catch fire. Mayor Herzig is right in concluding it’s time to at least review, and perhaps rethink, a well-intended undertaking that fell short of its goal.
Putting artificial limitations on talented local people, smart, experienced, ambitious about their native or adopted community, must be a mistake.
One caveat: The current city charter was a hard sell, but – in the end – the deal was clinched. On Nov. 7, 2010, 76.08 percent of voters approved it, 1,177 cast aye ballots to the nays’ 370.
A new charter revision effort must earn credibility. The new document must be likewise sold to the public, as the last one was. If it indeed corrects flaws in the 2011 document – as it can and should – that shouldn’t be a heavy lift.
If it includes major changes, Oneonta citizens must be convinced they are indeed improvements. Then, put to a vote, the revised charter passed, and establish a firm foundation for a future that may very well be better guided by leading citizens.