Charter Input Parsed
By JIM KEVLIN•Hometown Oneonta
Edition of Friday, Oct. 17, 2014
There were many issues raised, but two predominated at a tense Common Council meeting Monday, Oct. 13.
One, that watering down city-manager credentials from a master’s in public administration (MPA) to a bachelor’s, was an attempt to circumvent the new City Charter, which residents adopted by a 1,128-348 vote in November 2011.
Two, that by bypassing former City Manager Mike Long – the city’s first – and going directly to department heads, Council members were undercutting the charter’s support of professional management.
Long’s successor, Marty Murphy, had been sworn in earlier in the evening, and sat at the mayor’s left hand through the 90-minute session, answering questions and offering advice when he was consulted.
The special meeting had been called for the sole purpose of assessing the 20-page report of the Charter Review Commission, formed by Mayor Dick Miller following Long’s departure May 31 after only 18 months on the job.
As evening’s end, he concluded, “The council feels, virtually unanimously, that the charter was implemented.”
The exception to that unanimity was Council member David Rissberger, who chaired the original Charter Commission. Challenged at one point by Council member Mike Lynch, Rissberger shot back, “Just because I’m in the minority does not mean I’m wrong.”
Earlier in the discussion, citing the requirement for an MPA – the new city manager has one; the preferred candidate of some Council members for the job, Director of Finance Meg Hungerford, did not – Rissberger said, “I don’t think we fulfilled that at all.”
Council member Chip Holmes said he didn’t believe voters cared about the higher qualification. He voted for the charter, he said, and “that – the MPA – didn’t matter to me as a voter.”
He pointed out that City Attorney David Merzig had written an opinion allowing the lower qualification – “we had Merzig in on the whole thing” – which brought that topic to an end.
Discussion then shifted to working through the city manager or going directly to department heads, and a debate ensued on what on “lines of supervision,” specified in the charter, means. “Lines of supervision are different than lines of communication,” said Council member Bob Brzozowski.
Holmes said he would go through the city manager first when seeking to get something done. “If things aren’t getting done,” he said, “then you have to bypass him to get it done.”
Working through a city manager “is a very new idea for us,” said Council member Maureen Hennessy. “That is a sea change for us.” But, she added, “with an effective city manager, that will take a lot of the angst out of it for us.”
Discussion also arose about how the city manager, under the charter, has the authority to hire and fire. Saying he assumed a city manager would brief council before making significant personnel decisions, the mayor asked the new city manager to weigh in.
“Removing an employee is a pretty significant step,” said Murphy. “That decision should come with the concurrence of city council.” “Concurrence” rather than “approval,” he said. A council vote on a dismissal “allows politics to come in.”
Under an outline proposed by the mayor, the number of council committees was reduced from five to two: Finance & Administration, including Human Resources, and Facilities & Community Improvements.
In place of the police committee – a “committee of the whole” – the fire and police chiefs, and also the code enforcement officer, would be asked to report to the full board once a month.
This means council members would have to attend fewer committee meetings, which can be lengthy, and the meetings would be scheduled for 7 p.m., more convenient to the public.
Also, agendas and minutes would be posted on the city website, another recommendation of the review commission.
Miller said he would prepare a memo outlining those changes. “The charter will be better and our functioning will be better as a result of this,” he said.
County Rep. Kay Stuligross, D-Oneonta, a member of both the Charter and Charter Review commissions, was at the meeting and said later she approves of those adjustments as making City Hall more transparent.
“They were all too defensive,” she added. “We (the commission) wanted them to look forward. I would rather have them look forward. How can we do a better job?”