The Need for Charter Reform Becomes Obvious and Urgent

Editorial Board

In a surprise February 3 press release, Mayor Steve Noble announced a major proposal to restructure the Departments of Public Works (DPW) and Parks & Recreation, which would greatly expand the current role of the Superintendent of DPW to oversee both departments. The Mayor’s proposal also creates a new Deputy position who would oversee several divisions, including parks maintenance, recreation programming, environmental education programs, along with sanitation. He even had a person ready to provisionally fill this new position immediately: his wife, Julie Noble, who is currently a city environmental education and sustainability coordinator.

Not surprisingly,  his proposal has not been received well. There have been cries of nepotism and ethics charges have been filed. Members of the Common Council, who had little or no warning of this proposal before it was announced to the public, have expressed unusual hesitation. However, there may be a silver lining in this mess.

READ: Kingstoncitizens.org’s “City Government is not a Mayor’s Oyster: The Restructuring of DPW, Parks & Recreation and Nepotism”

Kingston’s city charter in its current form gives the Mayor considerable power. He alone appoints all commissions and boards. He hires and fires officials, not all of whom have the credentials necessary for the particular role. The silver lining? His egregious heavy-handedness has a lot of people talking about the need for charter reform. The Mayor himself has supported charter reform in the past, and at the Common Council’s Laws & Rules Committee on February 19,  he admitted that the charter was outdated and expressed his desire to work in partnership with the Council to update it in a comprehensive manner.   

VIDEO of Laws and Rules Committee meeting on February 19, 2020. 

Why charter reform now?

According to the New York Department of State’s ‘Revising City Charters In New York State’ technical series, a city charter, …is the basic document that defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the city government. It is comparable to the State Constitution and to the Constitution of the United States. The charter is, therefore, the most important single law of any city.”

Those who have followed KingstonCitizens.org know that for the last decade, reforming Kingston’s charter has been a major goal of ours.  That’s because in 1993, after many years of hard work by citizens with support from folks like the local Chamber of Commerce and League of Women Voters, there was a referendum to change Kingston’s form of government to a City Manager form.  It passed overwhelmingly. However, Kingston’s newly elected and popular Mayor, T.R. Gallo (who had also served briefly on the charter commission but stopped showing up some say in protest of the City Manager discussion) was unhappy with the new charter as it would diminish the powers of his office.  Swiftly, Gallo put together his own charter commission only a few months into the new charter’s passage. As Tom Benton describes it in his commentary “How Kingston got its ‘strong mayor’” in the Kingston Times, “As for the proposal itself, it was rather ingeniously constructed by taking the newly adopted charter and merely replacing the words “city manager” with “mayor” throughout. There were some other modifications, of course,  but that was the essence of it. And here was the effect: Under the adopted charter, the city manager was given very broad and powerful executive authority, the governmental check on that authority being control and supervision by the Common Council. Under the new proposal, an elected mayor would have the same broad authority, but would be entirely free from any such control or supervision by the council. Strong mayor, indeed!”   Kingston voters approved a “strong mayor” form of government by a narrow margin.  “…The city manager charter adopted a year earlier was consigned to history without ever having been tried and the era of the strong mayor was ushered in.”      This is the reason why—by design and by accident—Kingston’s executive branch has the power that it has without sufficient checks and balances.  

Charter reform introduced by Kingston Common Council in 2019.

As recently as  June 2019, Ward 9 Councilmember Andrea Shaut—who now serves as the Council President—introduced the subject of charter reform to the Laws & Rules Committee, which she then chaired. It was her desire that there be a collective effort to educate themselves and the community about the value of revising the charter to reflect the current needs of Kingston. 

While it was a welcome first step, her Council colleagues did not see a pressing need for action and the effort did not advance.  We are optimistic that its time has arrived.

READ: KingstonCitizens.org, “Education is Key. Common Council Takes Up Charter Revision Discussion”

Next steps

There are a host of reasons, all simple and sensible, why we have always thought that Kingston should return to a City Manager form of government.  Because it is unconstitutional to require that candidates for Mayor to have certain qualifications to hold the office beyond being a U.S. citizen and above a certain age,  our local government is led by individuals who learn on the job (hopefully) and who can restructure the administration to suit their agenda and biases. With a City Manager or administrator form of government, there are still officials popularly elected to represent the community.  The advantage of having a City Manager is that they have skills and experience specific to government administration. If they do well in their position, they can remain no matter who is elected. The same would be true for any department head.  

As practical-sounding as our opinion may be, it’s only one in a city of 24,000 people. To change the form of government is serious business. It has to be a community-based conversation guided by an unbiased facilitator. The product of this effort would be a revised charter for voters to adopt by referendum.  

We appreciate the Mayor and Council members’ support of charter reform. If they are at all serious about it, then we believe that the Mayor’s proposal to merge departments should be thrown out. An acting Superintendent of Parks & Recreation can be appointed and they can spend the next few months working with the Superintendent of the Department of Public Works to identify any tasks under Parks & Recreation that are better suited for DPW. Together, they can submit a list of recommendations to the Mayor for his consideration. 

It’s been 25 years since our city charter was last examined in a comprehensive manner. It is the responsibility of the community at large to insist that it happens. The time has never been more right.

City Government is not a Mayor’s Oyster: The Restructuring of DPW, Parks & Recreation and Nepotism.

By Rebecca Martin

On January 25th, Kevin Gilfeather announced his retirement as Superintendent of Kingston’s Parks & Recreation Department after 23 ½ years in the position.  Just six days later, Mayor Steve Noble, who for many years worked under Gilfeather as one of two environmental educators, submitted the following communication to the President of the Common Council with the hope of getting special business added to its February agenda. It read:

Dear President Shaut, 

With the impending retirement of Kevin Gilfeather, Superintendent of Parks and Recreation, I have been working with my staff to develop a long-term plan that supports the continued operations of our incredible parks and programming and identifies opportunities for improvement. As part of this process, I have been in discussion with not only the leadership of Parks and Recreation, but also of the Department of Public Works. While each Department serves critical and unique functions, I believe wholeheartedly that these departments can and should work closer together for the benefit of our community. By collaborating together, we have the opportunity to improve our system so that the services to our community and taxpayers are delivered in an economical, efficient and sustainable manner. I am respectfully requesting that this matter be referred to both the Finance and Laws and Rules Committees. I will be in attendance at both of these meetings to present my proposal and answer any questions the Council may have. Additional documents supporting this proposal will be sent under separate cover, prior to these meetings, so that the Council members may familiarize themselves.  

Mayors and citizens alike can submit communications, by letter or email, to the Common Council requesting that it take up a certain issue. From stop signs to Department requests, the Council President will assign the matter to whichever Council Committee she deems appropriate.  In Kingston, these communications are made publicly available as hyperlinks in the online agenda for the Council’s regular monthly meeting. This helps the public to anticipate forthcoming issues that may be taken up by the Common Council. 

In this case, the Mayor’s communication arrived without any detail as to what he had in mind, only the promise that “additional documents supporting this proposal will be sent under separate cover, prior to these meetings, so that the Council members may familiarize themselves” and a request to be added to both the Finance and Laws & Rules Committee agendas. 

Then, late in the afternoon of the following day,  the Mayor got more specific in a press release, announcing his plans to “integrate leadership teams” of the Department of Public Works (DPW) and Parks & Recreation Department by creating two new positions and expanding the role of the current Superintendent of DPW.  Serving as the new Deputy Superintendent of Environmental Services would be his wife, Julie Noble, who would be “provisionally selected” until she sits for a New York State civil service examination. According to a recent news article,  Julie Noble’s new salary would rise by as much as $23,000. The Mayor’s plan also calls for the creation of a new Recreation Director position, which would be filled by his former Confidential Secretary.  (Please see clarification below)

The Mayor’s announcement occurred before the Council knew the details of his proposal. His press release was likely news to most of them, as it was to the public. 

The Mayor’s rush to accomplish his desired Department restructuring creates a messy situation for everyone. It might very well jeopardize a possibly sensible idea. Examining its merit is the responsibility of the Common Council, beginning with its Laws & Rules Committee and later, the Finance Committee. According to Kingston’s Charter, reorganizing Departments calls for a local law process.  

The most perplexing part of this whole thing is the Mayor’s intention to fill the new positions with a family member and a friend—the very definition of nepotism. The Deputy Superintendent of Environmental Services, a position intended for Julie Noble, would report to the Superintendent of Public Works, who serves at the pleasure of the Mayor without any protections in place for his own job. If he takes issue with the Mayor’s wife down the road, who is more likely to have the Mayor’s ear?  Needless to say, this structure creates a conflict of interest and could violate the City of Kingston’s ethics law (see 49-3 Standards of Conduct).

We reached out to Council President Shaut today to ask if the Council had received any more information outside of the posted agenda packet from last evening’s Council meeting on the Mayor’s proposal and whether or not the item would be sent to two Council Committees at once. 

“The Mayor has not submitted any more detail to the Council at this time. The Mayor did request the communication to be sent to both the Finance Committee and Laws & Rules Committee for February,”  wrote Shaut.  “Originally, I did assign it to both Committees for the month; however, after learning more about his request and the fact that it does need to be a local law process,  I have determined it would be inappropriate to discuss at Finance before it is vetted by Laws & Rules.”  

Shaut also included her response to the Mayor’s communication.  “After gathering more information on the specific process that will need to take place with the Council regarding your communication of a collaboration between DPW and Parks & Rec, I am taking off the communication to the Finance & Audit Committee for the month of February. According to our Charter, restructuring departments can only happen through a local law by the Common Council. The appropriate Committee to address your proposal first would be Laws & Rules. The Finance Committee’s decisions will happen only once, and if, the Local Law is shaped.”  

The Council President’s clarity in these communications helps to outline the proper process that should be followed. 

City government is not a Mayor’s oyster. It belongs to the public, and a good government has a strong system of checks and balances to protect the public interest.  In this case, the merging of Departments, the immediate creation and filling of new positions, and the reorganization of current DPW staff should be placed on hold until after the Common Council has had the opportunity to weigh the Mayor’s proposal and hear from the public.

Clarification:  Although the executive branch has not provided more detail about plans to restructure the DPW and Parks & Recreation, we have learned in the meantime that Lynsey Timbrouck who would be hired as the Director of Recreation took the civil service exam in 2018, prior to any knowledge of Gilfeather’s plans to retire. On the exam, she scored a 90, making her 2nd on the list.