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It is believed that the recommendations offered by the City Charter Review Commission will provide the basis for improving city government by eliminating deficiencies and ambiguities in the current City Charter while strengthening both the executive and legislative branches, enabling each branch to do its job better. Fixing these structural problems in the city’s charter can only help the city tackle the tough issues that it faces today.
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The Charter Commission was empaneled in 2015. This bi-partisan commission was formed as a direct response to persistent and ongoing problems encountered by both the administration and the Common Council that could be traced to structural issues inherent in the city’s charter. As a result, representatives from both the executive and legislative branches at the time requested that the commission be formed to study these recurring problems and to suggest revisions that would correct them. The commission, Anne E Saylor, Patrick J. Watson, Scott L. Volkman, Peter C. McGinnis, Carmen M. McGill, Ronald J. McGaw, Michael C. Petronio and Jode Susan Millman, Esq. was empaneled and charged with completing its work and presenting its findings and recommendations to the Mayor, Common Council and the public.
Since it was formed in 2015, the Commission has spent the last year interviewing many former and current city employees, department heads, and elected officials in order to better understand how the City Charter affected their day to day work. From these interviews a clearer picture emerged on those issues contributed to administrative and legislative problems.
It was believed by many of those interviewed that some of these issues could be traced to ambiguities and lack of clarity found in the current City Charter. In addition to conducting in depth interviews, the Commission also, with financial assistance from the Dyson Foundation, engaged the Benjamin Institute at SUNY New Paltz to conduct a comprehensive review of municipal government throughout New York State. The Institute’s report helped provide a strong basis for comparing how similarly sized cities throughout the state are structured, giving the Commission a sense of what works in other small- to mid-sized cities.
Until 1994 Poughkeepsie had a Council-Administrator form of government where the Mayor, while elected from all city voters, held the same power as each of the eight member of the Common Council, each elected by voters from his/her wards. This system was widely referred to as a "weak mayor" system. In 1994, the city enacted changes recommended at the time by an earlier charter review commission, that the city adopt Mayor-Administrator form of government. Their goal was to create a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances.
Although many refer to this current system as a "strong mayor" system the commission has found that this term is not accurate. As determined by the Benjamin Institute the City of Poughkeepsie’s current Charter creates a hybrid form of government that exists nowhere else in New York State. Under this charter, the mayor cannot hire or fire department heads; the city administrator does this. Meanwhile, the Mayor appoints the City Administrator, but that appointment is subject to the approval of the Common Council. This often creates confusion about who’s really in charge. The Charter Review Commission’s goal was to essentially carry out the original and recommended intent of the previous commission by creating a true strong mayor. A mayor who can hire and fire the administrator and department heads. Under the proposed system, the buck will stop with the mayor while the laws (and purse strings) will be maintained by the Common Council.
The Commission considered all the standard forms of government including the council-city administrator form. Under such a system the day-to-day operation of the city would be run by a professional but unelected administrator accountable to the council but not the people. The mayor would go back to being just like one of the council people. The Commission determined this would represent a throwback to the previous structure of the late 20th Century and not in the long term interest of the city.
Under the recommended changes, the mayor would become a full-time elected official who would no longer step in to break tie votes on the Common Council. This oddity often served to blur the lines between the executive and legislative functions of each branch. The Mayor would also be empowered to hire and fire department heads, providing him/her with the authority necessary to clearly direct the city’s priorities.
As was determined through the Commission’s in depth interviews with past mayors and other city officials it is clear that, in order to be effective, the position demands the full time and attention of the office holder. It was also determined that most of the mayors who have served the City of Poughkeepsie over the past 30 years have worked full time for a part-time salary. The discrepancy between the required workload and the pay has limited the pool of people willing and able to run for this office. It is Commission’s hope that aligning the charter with reality will encourage more highly-qualified and experienced people to run for office in the future.
Because there are eight wards in the City of Poughkeepsie, there is a need for a tie breaking ninth vote that can establish important legislative priorities and move city initiatives forward. While the Commission considered reducing the number of wards to 5 or 7 wards to create an odd number to address this structural problem but commission members felt the addition of a ninth member would be most acceptable and productive solution to elected officials and the public.
Because he/she would be elected by all city voters, the new at large Council member would serve as the Council Chairperson. They would be responsible for establishing the Common Council agenda by working with other council members, the mayor and the city administrator. They will also have the authority to establish committees which can focus on specific areas like finances and safety.
The Commission felt strongly the Council Chair should be elected by all city residents and therefore represent the interests of all wards. At election time this person would be accountable to all the city residents and not just the residents of one ward. In the other 29 municipalities in Dutchess County and the Mid-Hudson Valley cities of Kingston and Newburgh, the Council Chair is elected by all the voters. It is important to note, however, that legislative party caucuses and their leadership will be maintained, allowing for both a Majority Leader and a Minority Leader position on the Council. These positions will continue to hold legislative authority in establishing and enacting party priorities.
The mayor isn’t on the council. Except for the budget, the mayor can’t propose resolutions or laws. The mayor only votes in the event of a tie. Most importantly, except for Mayor’s comments and when he’s asked a question, he is not permitted to take part in conversations at council meetings.
By law all wards have essentially the same number of voters so there is no mathematical reason one or two wards should dominate. The commission was very aware that wards vote at different rates. This is one of the reasons it didn’t choose to reduce the number of wards. It wanted to maintain the healthy diversity on our current council.
The Commission also firmly believes that the suggested change ensures that a resident from any ward could be elected to a city wide race if they present a positive, progressive and thoughtful agenda to the public.
The changes proposed by the Commissioner will cost the city a total of $73,500 which is.09% of the city’s $82 million budget. The Commission believes the small incremental expense represents an investment in creating a more efficiently run government. Those efficiencies and the resulting benefits that will come from a smoother more focused government will translate into savings and revenues that should vastly eclipse the cost of the investment.
We’re only proposing one additional part-time position - the Council Chair. The reality is that most of our part-time mayors have been working full time for decades so that really isn’t changing.