Role of Mayor in Charter Proposal Doesn’t Make Sense

[JK: Due to a software issue I have had to re-publish this post.]

After combing through the latest iteration of the proposed charter what stands out to me is how poorly crafted it is. It has the feeling of “don’t worry, we’ll work out the details later.”

Who Wrote This?

The previous charter proposal was written by an official charter commission. As required by law, the process was quite transparent. Their meetings were open to the public. Video recordings were made of all of their meetings.

We have no idea who wrote this charter. As there is no public documentation of their meetings or who was at them there is no record as to what the thinking was that went into the crafting of it. The poverty of the document demonstrates the value of feedback that this charter proposal would have benefitted from.

Full Time Mayor?

According to Professor Bob Turner, the Mayor will be “Full Time.” In order for the mayor to be a full time employee there would need to be something in the charter that precluded him/her from other employment. There is nothing in the charter that even states that he/she will be full time let alone language that would preclude outside work.

There is also the fact that while the charter specifically provides the mayor with medical/health/dental/vision insurance there is nothing stipulating what sick, personal, and vacation time they would receive. This raises the question as to whether this was an oversight. If it was an oversight this would be just another example of the lack of thoroughness in the document. It is unfortunately possible that in spite of the publicity, the position is not actually meant to be full time.

Unlike the mayor proposed by the charter advocates, the demands of the current office are considerable and traditionally our city mayors have worked many hours. The current mayor administers the planning and development office and is responsible for negotiating contracts with the city’s unions, among other duties. In addition, the city attorney’s office is under the Mayor although he/she reports to the whole Council.

If adopted, other than making appointments to boards, chairing Council meetings, signing contracts, and dealing with “intergovernmental duties (more on this later)” the proposed mayor will have virtually no administrative responsibilities as clearly stated in their charter [section 2.04].

Why A Salary of $65,000.00?

The proposed charter is quite clear that all administrative duties have been stripped from the mayor’s responsibilities and given to the city manager. This is in keeping with their theme that an administrator, somehow insulated from politics and with a degree in management, will be the sole person managing the city.

With such minimal responsibilities it is not at all clear to me why they propose raising the salary for mayor from the current $14,500.00 to $65,000.00 plus medical/health/dental/vision insurance and extending the term for the mayor to four years.

How the advocates for this new charter arrived at the $65,000.00 is unknown.

Ron Kim and Julie Cuneo are the co-chairs of the group campaigning for the charter. I wrote to Mr. Kim asking how they determined the salary. As noted in an earlier post, I was unable to get an answer from him and Julie Cuneo never replied.

I have also posted the same questions on Common Sense Saratoga and It’s Time Facebook pages but so far there has been no answer.

It is instructive to look at the debate over the mayor’s salary that the charter commission had in 2017. It is important to note when reading this that the duties assigned to the mayor in the currently proposed charter are exactly the same as in the earlier, unsuccessful charter and many of the members of that commission are identified as members of the current charter change campaign committee.

Here are the minutes from the 2017 Charter Commission on how much to pay the mayor.

Jeff Altamari said he had read through NYCOM data and the average salary of a Mayor with the City Manager was $19,000. Robert Turner said the data he had reviewed showed the median salary at $40,000.

Barbara Lombardo, audience member, asked why the City would give the Mayor free health insurance.

Robert Turner said there are quite a few expectations for the Mayor and there should be some benefit of being Mayor.

Beth Wurtmann asked if anyone thought that not having health benefits would discourage someone from running.

Gordon Boyd said people running for these kinds of offices are not running for health benefits.

Rob Kuczynski said he too looked at the NYCOM data and if we were to toss out New Rochelle, the next highest Mayor was earning $17,000. He said that $40,000 was too high for the Mayor’s position. He reminded everyone that we will have a City Manager to do the work.

Jeff Altamari said there are a lot of ceremonial duties for the Mayor to tend to.

Rob Kuczynski said again, that he believed that $40,000 was too high.

Elio DelSette said we would be going from a Mayor who currently puts in 70 or more hours a week to a Mayor who will likely put in less hours because there is a City Manager.

Gordon Boyd said we do not know what the demand will be on the Mayor’s position. He said someone who is self-employed and puts in a larger number of hours as Mayor is taking away from their own business. He said adding the benefit of health insurance was reasonable for the time that the Mayor may put in.

Pat Kane reminded everyone that minimum wage continues to rise.

June 26, 2017 Charter Commission Minutes

Conspicuously absent in this extract is any discussion of a salary greater than $40,000.00 and that figure did not draw any enthusiasm.

A Fundamental Design Flaw

The advocates for charter change have a vision.

In listening to the many stakeholders what we heard was that we need a full time mayor to provide political leadership for the city and a vision for the city. Having an executive and legislature provides checks and balances and a separation of powers, just like the U.S. Constitution or the New York State Constitution. Checks and balances is the best solution to (SIC) providing transparency and accountability in city government.

From the website Common Sense Saratoga

Unfortunately, on multiple levels the actual charter they have produced is at odds with that vision.

As Lew Benton has pointed out, in spite of the charter advocates claim that there will be a separation of powers, under this charter there would be no executive position. The nature of the authority of a city manager is simply not the same as the Governor of New York or the President of the United States. The President of the United States and the Governor of New York are true executives. They do not operate under the direction of the Congress or the New York State legislature respectively. They are independently elected by their respective citizenry and are neither hired by their legislatures nor can they be fired by their legislatures. The city manager will serve at the whim of the city council and report not to just the mayor but to the entire council. This is similar to the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors where the County Administrator reports to the full board. I think most thoughtful people would agree that the current Saratoga County Board of Supervisors is nothing to emulate.

The proposed charter makes crystal clear that the city manager serves at the pleasure of the council as a whole and that the mayor enjoys no unique oversight role regarding the city manager.

The advocates for this charter put forth a narrative that is not supported by their charter. In an email I received from co-chair, Ron Kim, he echoed the quote above from Common Sense Saratoga, asserting that “Under the new Charter, the Mayor will both chair the City Council and oversee the City Manager.” There is simply nothing in the charter that empowers the mayor to “oversee” the city manager.

A Built In Conflict

Another aspect of the problematic mayor’s role in their charter:

[The Mayor will] represent the City in intergovernmental relationships;

Section 2.04

During the early years when I was executive director of the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council I regrettably found myself in conflict with the chairman of my board. In his enthusiasm, he began contacting state agencies that were funding the SCEOC as well as state agencies that the SCEOC was seeking grants from. I began receiving calls from these agencies initially asking me who he was and then asking who was authorized to represent SCEOC to them. In the end, the SCEOC board adopted a resolution stating clearly that the executive director was CEO of the agency and as such was the authorized representative in intergovernmental affairs. My board chairperson resigned. It was a painful period because this board president was a very fine person and it severely damaged a friendship that had meant a lot to me. I learned a difficult lesson about the need for clarity in an agency’s organization.

I can assure the readers of this blog that many issues will regularly emerge related to questions of compliance with contracts between the state and the city. Will the state deal with the administration of the funds they have allocated to the city through the mayor or the city manager? There needs to be a clear chain of authority in dealing with the state as well as other entities that contract with the city. This is no frivolous nitpicking. When disagreements arise between the city and the state there needs to be one voice and one strategy in addressing compliance.

We may be fortunate. The city may elect a mayor and hire a city manager whose social skills and egos will rise to the task. It is, however, a potential for confusion and conflict that is worrisome.

Debunking the Vision Thing

The advocates for this charter offer an appealing vision that the position of the mayor will “…provide political leadership for the city and a vision for the city.” Other than the title, however, there is nothing in the charter that actually empowers the mayor to “provide a vision” for the city other than making an annual state of the city address. As regards any strategic plan for the city, the power to craft such a plan is distributed to the entire council of which the mayor is only one member. The mayor enjoys no special authority.

Consider the nature of the mayor’s role in chairing council meetings. Those experienced in the always thorny problem of running efficient and productive meetings know that the chair needs to proceed with great care. They need to restrain the pursuit of their own agenda and run a meeting that treats every participant equally in order to help, if not create a consensus, then allow a majority to emerge to pass resolutions. Granted, an effective mayor with leadership skills would work with the other members of the council outside of the meetings to create a majority but the same role could be adopted by any member of the council.

I think that the authors imagined their mayor as being a leader but failed to provide the tools in their charter to realize their “vision.”

The reality is that the proposed mayor, who will no longer have the planning and economic development departments under them, will have less leverage for leadership than mayors who serve under the current charter.

The Ongoing Risk Of Conflict

My sense in reading the promotional material being put out by the advocates of this charter is that they see the mayor as a kind of community organizer who will solicit ideas from the citizens of the city and attempt to mobilize the community to realize these ideas.

To mobilize the community the mayor would need to draw on the resources of the city government but the control over how those resources will be used rests solely with the city manager. In fact, the authors of the charter have included language making it clear that members of the council, including the mayor, can only make requests through the city manager. The charter contains language that bars direct contact between the proposed mayor and any employee other than the city manager. From a management perspective this makes sense. There is a need for a rigorous chain of command but the mayor is not part of that chain.

As further evidence of the diminished position of the mayor, the proposed charter and the projected costs of the new government put forth, do not include any monies for even a secretary for the mayor let alone an office.

While it is possible that the city might elect a mayor and appoint a city manager who could rise above their egos and work harmoniously. Regrettably, a cursory search of the web produces many stories documenting how bitter the conflicts can be.

Here are some examples:

This article about Portland, Maine asks “Who Runs The City?” It is a case study of the concerns I raise in this post.

From Ogdensbury, NY

Merced, CA

Cincinnati, OH

Galveston, TX

Palm Springs, CA

Lake Worth Beach, CA

Nogales, AZ

The Charter Proposal Simply Lacks Rigor And Coherence

The authors of this charter appear to be seeking a strong mayor who will lead while at the same time severing the authority over the resources that would make that leadership possible because they want a “professional” manager to have exclusive control over those resources. This basic contradiction is the rock on which their “vision” flounders.

2 thoughts on “Role of Mayor in Charter Proposal Doesn’t Make Sense”

  1. Why $ 65,000? I’m going to stick my neck out here. I’m taking a chance of being accused of sour grapes as I was fired by Joanne Yepsen when she was Mayor. I don’t want to turn this into a defense of myself so I will simply say that it was based on an ethical issue on which we clearly did not agree.

    That said, I honestly believe that this proposal is, at least to some extent, to support Yepsen’s desire to return to office and she can’t afford the current salary. It is why she didn’t run for a third term. Add to that, some of those supporting this proposal are very connected to her and had an idea when she was in office the last time that they would have carte blanche to her office and she would back and forward their own agendas. And, by this I specifically mean the McTygues, et al who no longer held positions to do this themselves. The problem with their plan was that in our current form of government they ran into barriers in the form of other commissioners. That didn’t stop Sarah Burger from trying to ride roughshod over the others, particularly Commissioner Madigan who wasn’t playing their game. This is what eventually lead to Ms. Burger being allowed to resign as the council basically said that she could resign or be fired by the council as Yepsen was reluctant to do so. Then, of course, having a new attorney who played by the rules and ethics got in the Yepsen/McTygue hopes and plans. That’s not to say that another attorney (judge) didn’t try to intervene for Yepsen – lots of time behind closed doors in her office. I won’t even go into the ethics of that here. I’ll hold back enough just in case this passes and she actually does run for office.

    So, yes, I do believe, based on those that are listed as members of this group, that they would be very happy to have Yepsen run again at a salary she could afford while doing very little. Don’t worry though, she’ll make sure she’s in front of every camera and taking credit for everything whether it was her doing or not. Just make sure none of those events are early in the morning. She doesn’t do early morning!

    And, on a personal level, that alone would be reason for me to vote NO on this. On a practical level, there are many other reasons that I’ve already covered on this blog.


    1. Thank you, Gayle, for saying what many of us are thinking. Health insurance and a nice base salary, no prohibition on having an outside job, and a list of duties in the charter that will require minimum time on the job–perfect for her.

      Liked by 1 person

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