Charter Commission: A Ham-Fisted Abuse Of Data

The Charter Review Commission has promoted a narrative that the city manager model is widely used as a form of city government.  In addition they have promoted the narrative that the $40,000.00 salary they have put in the charter for the mayor is modest in light of the fact that the average salary for a mayor in New York is $50,000.00.

All of this appeared credible to me.  A review of the data they used, however, shows a very different picture.

The data the Charter Commission distributed in February and May regarding the salaries, populations, and executive positions for cities in New York came from the New York Conference of Mayors.  The most recent information was from 2015.  Interestingly the data is for 49 municipalities while according to Wikipedia there are 62 in New York State.  I guess either some cities did not respond to the survey or are not members of the conference.

Of the 49 cities reported on by NYCOM actually only 14 have city managers.  Apparently  only a small minority of cities in New York share the passion for city manager that our Commission does.

In the June 28 editions of the Saratogian, the Gazette, and the Times Union, Charter Commission chair Bob Turner refers to the NYCOM report to justify putting a $40,000 salary for mayor in their proposed charter. “We reviewed the New York State Conference of Mayors City Salary  Data from 49 cities and found that the average salary is $50,000 for mayors…,” he stated.  While the average salary for mayors in New York State is indeed $50,000, it seems far more relevant to look just at the salaries of mayors in municipalities that have city managers.  After all, the city manager absorbs many of the duties traditionally the responsibilities of mayors.  If  one looks at salaries for mayors in municipalities that have city managers the average salary is not $50,000.00 but $22,000.00.

More telling the median salary is only $12,000.00.  Interestingly after Niagara Falls (Population 51,193/Salary $78,000.00) and New Rochelle (Population 77,062/Salary $89,000) the next highest salary is $25,000.00 (see chart below).

The Charter Review Commission also rigorously promoted four year terms for the mayor and council by focusing attention on data they claimed showed most mayors and council members in New York serve for four years.  Here again, this obscures other important data.  While a significant majority of municipalities have 4 year terms for mayor, the data for council members’ terms is less definitive. As it turns out, the data shows that of the 47 municipalities listed as having councils, 25 municipalities have four year terms for council members. 22 reported two year terms. So technically do most municipalities have 4 year council terms? Obviously the answer is “yes”  but the Commission leaves unmentioned what a slim majority that  is.

Here is the data they used in May:

City City Manager? Mayor’s Salary
Auburn Y $11,000
Beacon Y $25,000
Canandaigua Y $7,000
Corning Y $9,000
Geneva Y $8,000
New Rochelle Y $89,000
Newburgh Y $9,000
Niagara Falls Y $78,000
Ogdensburg Y $7,000
Oneonta Y $12,000
Peekskill Y $13,000
Sherrill Y $2,000
Watertown Y $18,000
Watervliet Y $14,000
Average $22,000
City City Manager? Mayor’s Salary
Sherrill Y $2,000
Canandaigua Y $7,000
Ogdensburg Y $7,000
Geneva Y $8,000
Corning Y $9,000
Newburgh Y $9,000
Auburn Y $11,000
Oneonta Y $12,000
Peekskill Y $13,000
Watervliet Y $14,000
Watertown Y $18,000
Beacon Y $25,000
Niagara Falls Y $78,000
New Rochelle Y $89,000
Medium $12,000

 

The data used in February is even less favorable.

 
Based on Different Handout: 2/9/2017
Corning Y 9
Geneva Y 8
New Rochelle Y 89
Newburgh Y 9
Ogdensburg Y 7
Peekskill Y 13
Salamanca Y 13
Sherrill Y 2
Watertown Y 18
Watervliet Y 14
     
Average   18
Based on Different Handout: 2/9/2017
Sherrill Y 2
Ogdensburg Y 7
Geneva Y 8
Corning Y 9
Newburgh Y 9
Peekskill Y 13
Salamanca Y 13
Watervliet Y 14
Watertown Y 18
New Rochelle Y 89
Median   11

 

20 thoughts on “Charter Commission: A Ham-Fisted Abuse Of Data”

  1. For further analysis, it would be useful to see additional data for these cities, such as population, budget, average or median income, principal industries, and so on, to see how they compare with Saratoga Springs. Tough to put in a column would be how the duties of mayor and city manager are spelled out for the other cities, too. Also, how about the city managers’ salaries? The charts are a start, but far from the whole story. Perhaps Prof. Turner has a student who can do the research for class credit.

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    1. I am happy to share the data from the NY Conference of Mayors on mayors’ salary, population, city councils, and term lengths that I shared with John. There is a good correlation between city size and population, .65 pearson correlation coefficient. I can’t post images here, but I can send you the scatterplot.

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  2. Thank you for that. In one small post filled with verifiable costs and facts; you’ve given quality reasons why the City Manager form of government is not worth the costs or efforts. It is still a political power grab by a certain few within this city. Maybe we should pay the mayor and commissioners more than what they receive, but that could be debated more openly by the public. Maybe terms could be changed to four or three years or maybe term limits could be discussed as well. But clearly a whole new form of government to satisfy a few people’s passions is not in the interest of the citizens of Saratoga Springs.

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    1. Why limit people who can serve as Commissioners under this form of government? As Comm. Matheisen pointed out you have to be retired, filthy rich or own your own business. This is power in the hands of a few and a new form would open the door for many more citizens to represent the City, now if your Commissioner doesn’t give you their time of day you can’t go anywhere else. The change is in the City’s best interest.

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  3. I agree with all the points above. It occurs to me that our City Gvt./Charter debate is taking on the character of our national health care battle… In both cases, people are looking for tweaks and fixes – individual items like salaries and term lengths appear to be open for discussion; but a complete “repeal and replace” does not seem to be in the cards.

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    1. Righto, this is a 2012 re-run all that needs to be done is to update the current charter…..total waste of money…city managers are not what saratogians want!

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  4. It’s important to look more broadly to get better perspective, and bear in mind that the council-manager form is by far the most popular nation-wide. 3,500 cities, villages, towns and counties use it. Somehow we are forgetting that only 2 cities in New York use the outmoded commission form. This is by no means repeal and replace. The council-manager form was invented around 1910 for the express purpose of correcting the flaws in the commission form, barely 10 years old at the time. It was considered a tweak. Nobody in charge? (That’s right dear reader, in the commission form of government, there is no one in charge.) In the new charter, the professional manager is the city CEO. Nobody runs for office? (3 of 5 positions this fall will run unopposed. That will be 17 of the last 21 elections with uncontested races.) In the new charter, elected representatives will have the freedom to focus on policy issues, so that more people from all walks of life can run for office and have a voice in what happens in their city. No professionalism in government? (We elect department heads, who are not required to have any education or experience in their departments, and often don’t.) In the new charter, all city staff will report to an educated, experienced manager. Now that officials don’t mix elected office with department supervision, politics is removed from city services, so everyone is well served, not just members of the right political party. When the council-manager form was invented, few cities looked back. While the commission form, peaking at around 500 cities, has dwindled to about 140, council-manger has surged. Sounds like a few people in town still wish they were driving Edsels.

    Does it make sense to just look at what other cities do to decide what to pay our mayor, when so many who fear change like to repeat that we are a uniquely successful city? Is $40,000 really so outrageous for our city’s political leader, who by the reports of most recent mayors works much more than a full-time job? When’s the last time our mayor had a raise? Are we remembering that our city’s budget is over $42million a year, and almost 40 city staff make more than $100,000 a year?

    It’ strange to hear that people think that somehow a change to the most effective form of government in the country is somehow a political power grab. No single party will benefit. All parties should see this as an improvement. More people of all parties – including young people with families, and especially women – will step up to run for office. I keep hearing that somehow this is about our mayor looking for more power. Hmmm. So the commission didn’t choose the strong mayor-council form, the current mayor isn’t running for re-election, and the mayor in the new charter will have about the same role as she does now. Somebody please explain how this is a power grab. And yes, the details matter.

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    1. Rick:
      I love your post but, it is well over many heads. The point here is that you cannot ask a city manager to live in Saratoga Springs and have them not make above the average salary or median salary for our city. Doing so just invites corruption.
      JK:
      As to JK concerns, rather than worry about 50K or 70K salary we should be concerned that the Commissioner of Public Works gave away $900,000. Even if Mayor made $90,000 per year. did nothing and served for 10 years they would not have done as much damage as the Commissioner of Public Works at $900,000.

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      1. Paula
        Nice post. The proposed charter calls for an estimated 125,000.00 salary. (While the city already has 9 current non-department heads making over 125,000.00).
        Professional city managers are members of an internationally accredited organization named ICMA.
        The mission of ICMA is to create excellence in local governance by developing and fostering professional local government management worldwide. To further this mission, certain principles, as enforced by the Rules of Procedure, shall govern the conduct of every member of ICMA, who shall:
        Tenet 1
        Be dedicated to the concepts of effective and democratic local government by responsible elected officials and believe that professional general management is essential to the achievement of this objective.
        Tenet 2
        Affirm the dignity and worth of the services rendered by government and maintain a constructive, creative, and practical attitude toward local government affairs and a deep sense of social responsibility as a trusted public servant
        Tenet 3
        Be dedicated to the highest ideals of honor and integrity in all public and personal relationships in order that the member may merit the respect and confidence of the elected officials, of other officials and employees, and of the public.
        Tenet 4
        Recognize that the chief function of local government at all times is to serve the best interests of all people.
        Tenet 5
        Submit policy proposals to elected officials; provide them with facts and advice on matters of policy as a basis for making decisions and setting community goals; and uphold and implement local government policies adopted by elected officials.
        Tenet 6
        Recognize that elected representatives of the people are entitled to the credit for the establishment of local government policies; responsibility for policy execution rests with the members.
        Tenet 7
        Refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators. Refrain from participation in the election of the members of the employing legislative body.
        Tenet 8
        Make it a duty continually to improve the member’s professional ability and to develop the competence of associates in the use of management techniques.
        Tenet 9
        Keep the community informed on local government affairs; encourage communication between the citizens and all local government officers; emphasize friendly and courteous service to the public; and seek to improve the quality and image of public service.
        Tenet 10
        Resist any encroachment on professional responsibilities, believing the member should be free to carry out official policies without interference, and handle each problem without discrimination on the basis of principle and justice.
        Tenet 11
        Handle all matters of personnel on the basis of merit so that fairness and impartiality govern a member’s decisions, pertaining to appointments, pay adjustments, promotions, and discipline.
        Tenet 12
        Public office is a public trust. A member shall not leverage his or her position for personal gain or benefit.

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  5. A closer look at the Commission’s much touted survey of city hall employees also deserves a closer look. The information on their website says they got 75 respondents but we’re not told how many surveys they sent out so it is impossible to evaluate how significant this response was. No survey was done of Public Works Department employees although this is not disclosed. We are not told how many of the 75 respondents wrote comments nor do we know if we are seeing all the comments they received. As a government professor at Skidmore College, Mr. Turner surely knows that the disclosure of this kind of survey information is expected and important in assessing the credibility of a survey and the significance of its results. The absence of full disclosure of methodology and responses raises the question of to what extend this survey information has been “massaged” as well to support a predetermined position.

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      1. With all due respect, Professor Turner, I had looked at the survey information on the Commission’s website before I wrote my comments. I have just rechecked it using your link. I still do not see the information that should be there to allow for a proper evaluation of the survey and its results.

        The following information is simply not there.
        *How many surveys were distributed?
        *DPW is the largest department in the city yet they were not surveyed and this is not noted.
        *How many of the 75 respondents wrote comments?
        *Are all comments received printed on the Commission’s site?

        In addition instead of randomly selecting employees to take the survey you relied instead on respondents taking the initiative to reply. It is not clear therefore to what extent those replying are representative of city employees as a whole. We don’t even know for instance if you got replies from all the departments you reached out to.

        In conclusion, then, the information you have gathered from this survey can be considered only anecdotal at best. Best practices would dictate that broader conclusions about the attitudes of city hall employees in general on any of the issues covered cannot be made.

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    1. Surveys were distributed via email to City Hall and Public Safety employee email lists. CSEA officials asked their members to participate in the survey. DPW employees who work in City Hall did receive the survey. DPW employees who do not did not. We were told they did not have an email address. Two sets of emails were sent between Nov 25 and Dec 8 to encourage participation. There were 16 questions on the survey. Many of the questions were modelled from Talentkeepers, Durham Employee Satisfaction Survey, https://durhamnc.gov/DocumentCenter/Home/View/8458
      Several city employees who do not work in City Hall, such as fire fighters, police, and DPW, did not take the survey because they said they did not work there and did not know what was going on. We were told there are approximately 80-100 or so employees who spend most of their time in City Hall. We feel confident that we sampled most of them.
      It is also important to note that we did not just rely on the survey to assess how the city functions. We wanted to triangulate our data. We interviewed the Department Heads in City Hall, former deputies and a number of community stakeholders. Their comments about the uneven skills of the deputies, political infighting, and inefficiency of City Hall are very consistent with the survey results.
      Below are all the comments.

      With the Commission form of government, there is no continuity in getting our jobs done in City Hall
      Some Deputy Commissioners/Mayors are great, some are a disaster and all about the politics, or in the case of Public Works, do virtually nothing and just coast until they get enough time for retirement. The 2 year election cycle SEVERELY limits the ability of Departments to implement planned initiatives and/or spend funds to make needed improvements due to the fact that the Commissioners/Mayor care more about getting elected than they do about doing the right things and continuity of successful project planning and implementation. They perceive that the key to getting elected is not spending any money and keeping taxes from increasing. This is a disservice to the Citizens as we have a growing City and the provision of adequate municipal services and completion of capital budget projects each year is essential to promote sustainable and efficient growth, otherwise things decline and ultimately we pay more money for repairs and trying to catch up.

      Waste, fraud and abuse is the norm here in city hall.

      Commission form of government would work better if the elected were to visit and talk to the union representatives and the departments members on a regular basis rather than just management

      It amazes me that the city runs at all. If taxpayers could spend a day in city hall as an employee and see all of the pettiness of the commissioners, they would be outraged. The commission form of government sets up the departments to be separate domains and not to work together. If it weren’t for the employees caring about the city, nothing would get done because the commissioners only care about themselves and their causes. They need to go!!!!!

      Functions that require interdepartmental work tend to suffer depending on who is in office, for that reason a City Manager might make things more consistent between administrations. Longer terms would allow Commissioners to get up to speed in their roles and be more effective during their terms rather than being replaced just as they get their footing. Longer terms would also reduce the election year posturing to 25% of the years instead of 50%…. Deputies though needed to carry out day to day activities vary greatly in responsibility and required skills to perform the requirements of the individual department. It may be better to have the deputies be civil service positions rather than appointed positions that change with the commissioners, this would keep the operational aspects of the position intact with the institutional knowledge gained from being in that position. It would also buffer political aspects of the commissioners from making things difficult and keep a more cohesive attitude that we all are here to help the City function for the taxpayers not for “our” department. Under it all we just need to keep in mind that we are here for the residents of the City and that should be first and foremost in what everyone does. Can we make that part of the charter ? A clause to call people out when they aren’t doing things that go to that end ?

      I am a city employee. My office is not located in city hall, thankfully, making them feel more comfortable coming here for research purposes. There is a natural welcoming atmosphere here in this building and in my office.

      DPW is highly political
      Commission form of government is old and archaic and needs to change.

      I wish that the terms would be 4 years. It is hard enough to get work done but then to worry about a possible regime change every two years is not right.

      I work with many deputies in the course of my position on a daily basis. Some deputies are easy to work with and reason with, some deputies are more difficult than others; some are unwilling to consider someone else opinion or expertise.
      I think the commission form of government is out dated and politically motivated.
      These questions are very negative in the way they are posed to us employees. They seem designed to provide negative responses.
      The problem with our government is that our elected officials don’t value the employees for what we are worth. When the public sees the that the employees have no respect from their elected officials then the public doesn’t respect the employees.The elected officials need to stand behind their employees more. What the elected officials seem to forget is that with or without them, the employees still do their jobs with the highest of professionalism. The employees make the elected official look good. The City will still run. Also, as an employee it is hard to work in a building that has very little up keep. City Hall is dark and dingy. Not to mention the technology that we have to use could be updated to the current year.
      The biggest issue with the Commission form of government is the lack of consistency of the enforcement of policies from department to department. For example, one department lets an employee have two weeks off claiming a surgical procedure with no verification or “proof” and another department expects a doctor’s statement when an employee is out four days (as stated in the union contract and in policy).

      We are one entity “City Hall” we are ALL coworkers no matter what department we work in, however we are treated like completely separate entities. We all need to work together because all departments are intertwined. When Commissioners are having disagreements the employees are the ones who feel the brunt of that conflict.
      D.C. Finneran is extremely unprofessional.

      There is a serious lack of leadership and management skill from the top down. A big problem is the lack of consistency between departments and often within offices as to how emplouees are treated, disciplined, in what is expected of them, in how they are compensated especially regarding upgrades, and how policies are enforced regarding time off, tardiness, etc. Often it seems that the inmates are in charge of the asyllum. This makes for a very bad morale in city Hall and surrounding city buildings.
      The Commission form of government has allowed Marilyn Rivers to position herself where she is accountable to only one commissioner. Her job duties effect every department and she constantly gets involved in other department’s business and uses the Safety Committee as a mechanism to wield her influence. This position should be removed from the accounts and placed under the council as a whole. She’s accountable to no one since Franck seldom, if ever rains her in.
      Although it’s an antiquated form of government I think it works well for our city. It think the two-year term increases accountability for each Council Member. However, I would like to see the Appointed (non-elected) Advisory Boards and Review Boards have less influence. Let the paid professionals actually do our jobs.
      It’s not the Charter as much as it is the people who manipulate it and are allowed to.
      Deputies are hired based on political loyalty, not competence. Some are good, most are not
      If everyone followed all the Procedures and Polices that the City Council has adopted, there would never be a question about some minor inconsistencies that may exist. That being said, that compliance would be required with whatever form of government the City would have.

      The city has more issues than the public knows. Employees getting 5 digit raises because their job description got changed to handle “additional forms”. Clerks with no education making as much as employees with bachelors and/or masters. Staff that literally do nothing most of the day. One department bills another department for work?! Commissioners that are never in the building. Deputies that are yell and scream at employees. Seen the movie Office Space? We need job auditors to come in and say “What would you say you do here?” and have them followed around. It’s sickening.
      Most of these questions if not all, are written to determine if the form of government should change from commission form to a strong mayor/manager form. However, that is only a small percentage of the issues that affects the City Government’s operations. In my opinion the charter lacks clear roles for each department and accountability. Changing the form of government does not help define roles or demand accountability. The charter should mandate operation manuals and procedures to be developed and followed. The charter should also be updated to clearly outline duties and responsibilities and, in the event these duties and responsibilities overlap or conflict, a mechanism to resolve the issue should be provided within the charter. You may think based on this I am in favor of a commission form of government however that is not the case. A strong mayor/manager may be best for the City. I am only stating the survey lacks in addressing the larger percentage of issues and is too focused on 1 item. I fear if by changing the form of government only, as it looks like based on this survey, the review committee will have missed the best opportunity to truly make our city government more efficient, tax payer friendly, and more effective in delivery service our residents need.

      The politic with the city make productive functioning barely possible. Everything revolves around politics, reelection and power. As the city is presently run and managed, I have but no choice but to become involved in politics in an effort to prevent further erosion of any semblance of sustainability, job security and a happy work environment. If given the opportunity, I would transfer to another municipality should the opportunity arise.

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      1. Thank you, Mr. Turner, for sharing with the readers of this blog all the comments you received from the survey you did of city hall employees. While the majority of the approximately 20 or so comments were indeed critical of a variety of aspects of city government the responses also included comments such as the following:

        “These questions are very negative in the way they are posed to us employees. They seem designed to provide negative responses.”

        “Although it’s an antiquated form of government, I think it works well for our city. I think the two year terms increases accountability for each Council Member.”

        In addition there are other remarks that suggest changes that respondents feel would improve their work situation but would not involve a charter change.

        “Commission form of government would work better if the elected were to visit and talk to the union representatives and the departments members on a regular basis rather than just management.”

        “It’s not the Charter as much as it is the people who manipulate it and are allowed to.”

        I encourage blog readers to look at all of the comments.

        I have not seen these remarks included on your website nor ever referenced by you. I understand the temptation to cherry pick the data that best supports the arguments you are trying to make but I would suggest the credibility of the Commission would be greater if all data were more fairly and completely presented. I hope we will soon be seeing all of this new information posted on the Commission’s website.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I know I need to do some more reading on the topic though, right now, my main question is what the role of the Mayor will be. If there is a city manager, I would think this would not be a strong mayor position. How then, is the role different than it is no except for the fact that there will be more commissioners?

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    1. In the new charter, there will be 7 city council members, one of whom will be the mayor. In general terms the mayor will have duties similar to what the mayor has now, except he or she will not supervise any city staff. All city staff will report to the City Manager.

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  7. Dazed:
    I agree. It is very confusing. But….
    Fenton + Turner + Lombardo + “The Charter Reform Group” = BIAS

    An Irish Proverb, if I may:
    There once were two cats of Kilkenny,
    Each thought there was one cat too many;
    So they scratched, and they bit,
    In a quarrelsome fit,
    ‘Til instead of two cats there weren’t any.

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  8. Mr. Rick Fenton has consistently been an articulate, effective spokesperson for his POV. While some might question the reasoning that we should change just because the majority of cities have a different form of government, The Charter Change Campaign forces would have been better off to have him in charge as a spokesperson, rather than the current Chair of the Charter Change Examination Committee.

    I’ve got to call this one as I see it: IMHO the Charter Change Advocates are blowing their best opportunity to have their ideas considered in quite some time. Going in, the people have shown (putting it mildly) disdain for the rancor and contentiousness that has characterized recent City Council proceedings.

    And yet, there is suspicion plus some good ol’ ‘fear of the unknown’ among the voters. To that point, Mr. Fenton does miscue when he dismisses the ‘political power grab’ angle just because “…No single party will benefit.” Assuming he means political party, that is not in dispute. However, I do think a significant portion of the citizens believe that certain individuals with a vested interest in Charter Change will certainly benefit. I don’t need to name names here.

    Except one: Professor Turner. I’ve never met the man – though I have heard him speak at some of his public appearances. I’m sure he is a very nice individual. Blah, blah – disclaimer – blah, blah…

    Yet from a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign standpoint, he has shown himself to be an ivory tower disaster for the cause of change.

    Sorry to say. But I vote – and, as a voter, you change advocates need to hear this:

    I was willing to consider Charter Change, but no longer. “SurveyGate” is just the beginning. Releasing budget data that was late, incomplete and misleading are two things that have been explored extensively, with this blog leading the way. Now Straight Shooter raises the specter of yet another incomplete, poorly designed survey of City Hall employees, conveniently leaving out a department whose head is on record against change. C’mon! If this is true (and I have no way of knowing, but I hope it gets explored) then your good faith efforts, Mr. Fenton, are about to go down the tubes, again, in a big way.

    From a tactical standpoint, I feel like Charter Change advocates have behaved like they had this in the bag – all we have to do is present our academic mumbo-jumbo and the lemmings will fall into line – because we are ‘right’.

    In fact, you should have assumed that every vote was a vote that had to be earned. That Charter changers needed to run a near-perfect campaign, and this is hardly that.

    Is it too late? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But you lost me. I’m sticking with the devil I know.

    Tweak the Charter, and move on.

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