At last night’s Common Council Caucus, Council members discussed Resolution #134 to “Amend Charter to Authorize Public Referendum re: Water Powers”. Alderman-at-Large James Noble and Corporation Council Andrew Zweben were in attendance.
It appears to have been determined that the Charter amendment of Water Powers would be a local law change, which would require two readings and a public hearing to be set by the Mayor within 10 days after the first reading. The first reading would take place tomorrow night if the Council votes to approve the referendum. A public hearing would occur sometime in or around June 12th. The second reading would then be read at the July 7th Common Council meeting with a full council vote to follow to pass (or not) the referendum through to the November ballot.
At last evening’s meeting, Corporation Council Andy Zweben clarified that “The press release that was issued by the Water Department was not authorized by the Mayor, or the other members of the Water Department to the best of his knowledge and does not represent how he feels on this issue.” Andy Zweeben also relayed that speaking to the Mayor today, he stated that “…if the local law is passed, he will sign it. They’ll be a referendum and the voters will decide.”
Zweeben also expressed his discomfort with “the speed in which the referendum was moving” (* Please see below). But the Public Safety/General Government Committee has been working on this since March of this year where his office has been in attendance. That’s three months of discussion and it being on the Corporation Council’s radar. Regardless, we appreciate Corporation Council’s efforts here. Whether willingly or not, they provided the council with the information that they needed to move this ahead.
In order now for the referendum to be placed on the ballot, the council will need to pass through the resolution for referendum tomorrow, and a public process as described above must take place. All of which needs to be accomplished by the end of August in order for it to be submitted to the Board of Elections.
* Clarification: Watching for many months in this case, we have seen the Water Powers change go from a local law change, to a referendum to a combination of the two. As citizens, we depend on the good advice of our elected and appointed officials to understand the proper process.
We received a communication from Corporation Council Andrew Zweeben who said that we had misrepresented what he said at the last Public Safety/General Government committee meeting (see above and below). On the subject of the speed of the referendum, what he was referring to was that it was quick to draft an amended local law in just one week (5 days) which is true and he would have preferred more time to do so. Given the tight deadline to get this passed and onto the ballot in November, it is the case. We apologize for the misunderstanding.
You can view video from last evening’s meeting: 11:16 – 17:08 Resolution 134
“Amend charter to authorize public referendum re: Water Powers”
Tonight (June 2nd), the Common Council will vote on whether or not to pass a resolution for a referendum. If it does, the first reading of the proposed amendment will take place for the clock to start ticking.
Citizens are encouraged to speak tonight to support (or not) of a referendum for the November ballot. Public Comment will begin tonight at 7:30pm. Please arrive 10 minutes early to secure a seat and to sign-up. This event will be filmed thanks to Kingston News.
Having reached out to residents who are experts in the field of historic preservation, please note the following:
Attached find two reports prepared by an ACRA-Accredited archaeologist for the NYS DOT in 2002, and two current real estate market estimates. There is some discrepancy of physical address between tax roll, Ulster GIS, and the reports, but none regarding the historical significance of both properties – constructed ca. 1810-1830. Note on page two of each report that the subject property “meets eligibility criteria” for inclusion on both State and National Historic Registers, and that each “embodies the distinct characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction; or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.”
These two structures should be saved – along with others that we will be asked to appropriate funds for destruction. They are two hundred year old structuresthat speak to Kingston’s history – they should and can be preserved. Properties should be re-marketed to eligible buyers (individuals or organizations) for reasonable asking prices that facilitate and encourage their preservation. Clear and attractive identifying signage should be placed at the properties that state they are City-owned and for sale. Absent these steps, Kingston risks losing much credibility of the marketing message stating that “Historic Is Just Our Beginning.”
Equally important will be the City developing comprehensive and public-accessible criteria to evaluate not only the structural integrity – but also the historic value and status – of any property that is being considered for demolition. This means the City has to do its homework with SHPO, DOT, the County, Heritage Area Commission, Friends of Historic Kingston, and any other entity that may offer valuable information regarding a given property’s status.
Brad Will Alderman, City of Kingston
FROM THE CITY OF KINGSTON TOURISM WEB PAGE:
“The City of Kingston is nestled in the heart of Ulster County, New York. It is 91 miles north of New York City and 59 miles south of Albany. Kingston was New York’s first capital in 1777, and was burned by the British on October 16, 1777, after the Battles of Saratoga. In the 19th century, the city became an important transport hub after the discovery of natural cement in the region, and had both railroad and canal connections. Passenger rail service has since ceased, and many of the older buildings are part of three historic districts, such as the Uptown Stockade District, the Midtown Neighborhood Broadway Corridor, and the Downtown Rondout-West Strand Historic District.”
UPSTATER ARTICLE, EXCERPT – DECEMBER 8, 2014:
Historic is Just Our Beginning – But We’re Not Just Getting Started
“Here in Kingston we say, “Historic is just our beginning,” but when it comes to historic preservation, we aren’t just getting started. We know that when people are looking to move to a city like Kingston, back to a place where population has declined over the years as factories closed or the shift took place toward the suburbs, they look for historic areas first.
To be considered as a Commissioner of the Kingston Water Board:
Please submit your resume/CV (Curriculum Vitae) to Carly Williams, City of Kingston Clerk: firstname.lastname@example.org by April 30th, 2015 (because we were not given a date by the Mayor’s office, this date is arbitrary. However, we presume that it gives the city time to collect interest and make a decision).
On May 31st 2015, Water Board Commissioner Al Radel’s term will expire. Radel has served as a Commissioner on the Water Board now for 15 years, which is three terms. We appreciate his service.
That means, that a spot is opening up – and we are hoping that citizens who are interested in serving will step up.
The Mayor of Kingston appoints citizens (and business persons) to most Commissions/Boards/Councils in Kingston. Recently, we reached out to the Mayor’s office to find out what the process was. You know how fast we move around here, and after the second request without getting information, we decided to lay out our questions in a PETITION to give the public a chance to weigh in. That petition is live now, so have a look, consider signing it and leave a comment.
The questions were simple.
KingstonCitizens.org requests that Mayor Shayne Gallo require Water Department Superintendent Judith Hansen to:
Make both the description of the Board of Water Commissioner’s role and length of term visible and public on the City of Kingston’s Water Department web page.
Make all of the current members of the Board of Water Commissioners biographies and length of service to date visible and public on the City of Kingston’s Water Department web page.
The City of Kingston’s Mayor, who appoints Board of Water Commissioners, publish a public notice in a timely fashion announcing its search for new candidates for the upcoming term. This announcement should include a description of the Board of Water Commissioner’s expected role; preferred experience / qualifications for candidates; contact info and deadline for submissions; and the term length.
Yesterday, we heard from Water Department Superintendent Judith Hansen who responded:
“The Mayor asked that I contact you to let you know that appointments to the Board of Water Commissioners are made by the Mayor and that if you have anyone that would like to be considered for the position, they should submit their CV to him via the City Clerk’s Office. Neither the Board nor any employee of the Water Department, including the Superintendent has any role in or input into the selection process.”
Not much in the way of answering our questions. Then later, we heard directly from Mayor Gallo’s office:
“This is in reply to your inquiry about how vacancies and/or appointments are made to the Board of Water Commissioners or any other City board or Commission. Be advised the following process has been used since the City Charter has been adopted: Any interested City resident and/or business person may apply for consideration to any City Board and/or Commission by providing a letter of interest with a resume and background information and/or curriculum vitae of said individual. The interested party should submit the above to the City Clerk’s Office. Upon receipt, the letter of interest shall will forwarded to my office for review and consideration. If you know of an interested City resident who would like to be considered for appointment to the Board of Water Commissioners and/or other City boards and commissions, please share the above information with them. Thank you for your interest.”
The points unanswered at least expose something critical. We have some information on the process, but nothing that we didn’t already know.
So why can’t the City of Kingston provide a description of a Water Board Commissioner? Or nail down their term? Or share their biographies and experience so that we know who is at the helm of our water supply? Or put out a notice in the papers to residents with a deadline for their response?
As we are entering into an election cycle, we will take these things up again at an appropriate time. We intend to advocate for Kingston to overhaul it’s city charter at a future date.
To be considered as a new Commissioner of the Kingston Water Board:
Please submit your resume/CV (Curriculum Vitae) to Carly Williams, City of Kingston Clerk: email@example.com by April 3oth, 2015 (because we were not given a date by the Mayor’s office, this date is arbitrary. However, we presume that it gives the city time to collect interest and make a decision).
This morning, Mayor Shayne Gallo was live on Kingston Community Radio where he discussed his point-of-view regarding the proposed Niagara Bottling Company project. It begins at 1:36:09.
“I don’t have enough, and the majority of Kingston residents and business/water users don’t have enough information to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’.” Since September, KingstonCitizens.org has provided the community with documentation, expert evaluation and videos of almost every significant meeting to expose a great deal of information. It is one of the key reasons, in fact, that the city currently has what it does in order to have crafted several resolutions in support of the DEC being Lead Agency and the CoK being named an Involved Agency. In addition, the work that has been forged through a steady citizen effort is perhaps would be one of the main reasons a Positive Declaration (pos dec) will be determined. Without a pos dec, the public wouldn’t have any of the information the Mayor claims it needs.
“There’s transparency now.“ There is transparency now, thanks to the citizen volunteers working diligently to provide factual information (or to show in some cases the lack thereof).
“Quite frankly, I don’t care about the non-residents.” He most certainly should given that the sale of Kingston’s water impacts the entire region. The amount of water Niagara is asking for, too, is an exorbitant amount even for them. Everyone should be watching this closely, as how this process is handled will set a precedent on how national/international water bottling companies proceed in NY State.
“I’ve only gotten five phone calls, including the individual who is spearheading the opposition against the project.“ Is that so? Kingston citizens. Let the Mayor know what you think either way. Let it also be known that KingstonCitizens.org is not spearheading ‘opposition’. All along, it has been our goal to work to bring information out to the public so that the public has an understanding and a voice in the matter. If there is opposition, it’s because the public isn’t comfortable with the way this process has been organized thus far. Elected officials involved need to take responsibility here.
In the meantime, give him a buzz. 845/334-3902.
“There is no reason why the SEQR process can’t work.“ He’s right. But in order for that to occur, a positive declaration must be determined, a coordinated review must take place and the Action must not be segmented.
Mayor Gallo – “It’s the construction, it’s a 53 million dollar installation of basically a water work that will provide water, ok, for their product. So with all due respect Walter (the radio host) a project that size, OK….“
Walter (Radio Host) – “The City, the water department is going to spend $53 million dollars.“
MG – “No, here’s the thing – you see you’re also not informed properly first of all.“
W – “I’m just asking the question.”
MG – “The water department stepped back, the Town of Ulster with Niagara they are going to have to spend the money for the SEQR process. The COK is not spending a dime. We’re not an involved agency….here’s how it works. If we were involved in the design, the construction and the funding. If we had discretion over any one of those things with this project then we’d be the Involved Agency. But we don’t!“
According to the WILL SERVE letter issued by the Kingston Water Department, it is determined that in order to provide the Niagara Bottling Company with their water request, “the preliminary estimate for the cost of the work, without a geotechnical investigation and assuming minimal rock removal, is approximately $2 million dollars”.
What does that mean? The Kingston Water Department has clearly stated here that additional improvements to the Kingston Water Department water distribution system would be necessary. If the Niagara Bottling project is approved, the City will need the assentof the City of Kingston Common Council in order to make those improvements. See Kingston Charter C11-4making the City of Kingston an INVOLVED AGENCY.
All of this begs the question. Who is the one that is misinformed? Citizens, it most certainly is not you.
Perhaps the most disappointing letter that I have seen in the past four weeks since beginning this work is one initiated by the City of Kingston’s Corporation Council Andrew Zweben – a public sector lawyer dated 10/24/14 -appears to be working against our Common Council’s memorializing resolution. Why?
“What the manager doesn’t do – can’t do according to ICMA Ethics Rule – is engage in politics. Strome said that separating politics from day to day city business avoids favoritism – like say when areas represented by the minority party get plowed last after a snowstorm – and creates a stable class of professional city employees who don’t turn over with each new administration. “Just because somebody worked on somebody’s campaign, somebody might feel like they owe somebody a job,” said Strome. That doesn’t happen in a council- manager system…Ellen Difalco (the Mayor’s personal secretary) said Kingston would be unable to afford a city manager. City Managers, according to the ICMA, make a median salary of about $101,000.”
– An excerpt from “Mayor or Manager” in the Kingston Times this week by Jesse Smith.
But, according to City Administrator of Beacon, NY Meredith Robson during the forum in response to Difalco’s comment reminded the audience this:
(view the VIDEO and listen in at 50:33):
“…There is an expense side of the budget and a revenue side of the budget and you’ve got to look at both sides. Yes, there might be a salary that you pay that you’re not happy about paying, but what the professional brings into the community may save you so much more…..for example…. I worked with three unions to get an overhaul of our health benefits program estimated in savings of about $300,000 a year….we changed what was comp providers, and saved $125,000 doing that. After an audit of our electric and telephone bills and got $250,000 back. These are just three quick things….in order to get someone who is really going to do the job you are going to have to pay for it…and what they do for a living and what they will bring to the community I suggest would be well worth it.”
“HISTORY (Kingston City Charter): Adopted by the Legislature of the State of New York as Chapter 747 of the Laws of 1896; became a law 5-19-1896 with the approval of the Governor; amended in its entirety by the Common Council of the City of Kingston 11-2-1993 by L.L. No. 5-1993; approved at a general election 11-2-1993; and further amended by the Charter Revision Commission 9-7-1994 and approved at a general election 11-8-1994. Amendments noted where applicable.”
Because we’re paying close attention to the Charter and Code right now, here is an example of how not to go about updating an elected official’s job description.
We’re all for updating job descriptions of our elected officials, but there are some glaring problems here that the public should understand. By having a better sense of these processes, the people can take control of what is theirs – that being city government and how Kingston is managed.
1. HOW DOES THE MAYOR’S NEW DESCRIPTION RELATE TO THE CHARTER and/or CODE? The Mayor’s text is not what is written in the charter – and based on what he has crafted, one would need to carefully cross reference as to how it relates to aspects of the code. Take for example his description, “The City Charter names the Mayor as President of the Police, Fire, Public Works and Water Boards“.
Here’s the tricky part. If you look at the administrative code online, it looks to be so.
However, acccording to this DOCUMENT also provided on the city of Kingston, NY’s website (but not reflected in the code), it shows that in fact the President of the Board of Water Commissioners since 2012 as being Joseph DeCicco and not the Mayor of Kingston.
Why is this important? When an elected official of the highest office doesn’t himself know how the city’s framework is structured, then how would the average citizen? That said, to everyone’s defense – if the code online isn’t up-to-date, then there isn’t any way of knowing unless you are a sleuth like me.
The charter is the law. Text is….well, text. Do we think the description in the charter is light? Absolutely. Are we concerned that the code online may not be up-to-date to keep up with the changes that occur from year to year? Even more so. We support an update of it all for elected city positions so that they are more current and detailed – but done so in the proper manner.
2. THE PROCESS IN UPDATING THE CHARTER. To undergo Charter revisions is a process that requires a commission, public hearings, a council vote and then a referendum on the general election ballot. The Code, along with the Charter, would have to also be addressed.
Although Charter and Code work together, they function very differently. The Charter is a “..document which delineates the legal boundaries of the city, defines its organization, powers, functions, and procedures. Generally, the Charter is the place where you will find matters of a more permanent and historical nature, such as the composition of city council, the various departments, and the procedure for assessment and collection of taxes. The Charter is the basic framework of the city.”
Code is the “…official collection or compendium of laws, rules or regulations of the city consolidated and classified according to subject matter.” Code, therefore, is constantly changing and should be updated on a regular basis for the sake of clarity and transparency.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Kingston’s code is kept current online – and that’s a very large problem that should be addressed by the council immediately.
You’ll notice at the top of this post the history of when the Charter was amended. First in 1896 and then not taken back up until 1993 with further amendments in 1994.
But City Manager was not something that then Mayor T. R. Gallo supported. So in 1994, we’re told that a lawyer out of Poughkeepsie, NY was hired and replaced the term ‘City Manager’ with ‘Mayor’. The amended document was brought to a new commission that this time, Gallo as Mayor selected who reversed City Manager to a Strong Mayor form of government. This all went down in a five minute meeting with a unanimous vote in favor. That’s stunning. With an election just around the corner, they had little time to get it on the ballot as a referendum. A public hearing was organized within a two week window following the commission meeting, then swiftly moved through council. The newly amended charter was placed on the ballot where the referendum passed by a slim margin.
Can you imagine the way the volunteers felt, who put so much into this process with thousands of hours of research and public outreach? Here’s hoping that history will teach us something.
READ Tom Benton’s account in a commentary written for the Kingston Times.
3. ELECTED OFFICIALS CAN’T CRAFT THEIR JOB DESCRIPTIONS. Although it would be convenient, elected officials can’t write their job descriptions as law for reasons stated above.
Important processes such as this are very public ones. KingstonCitizens.org will host a second educational forum at the end of April to discuss the in’s and out’s of the Kingston, NY City Charter and Code.
– Rebecca Martin
1. GOOD READING: A thorough list of documents to outline the”Charter/City Manager Committee” in Oneida City. Transparency here rules! VIEW PAGE
2. CHARTER DEFINITION – MAYOR: The Kingston, NY City Charter definition of MAYOR. Be sure to cross check it with the Administrative Code. ASK YOUR ALDERMANto look into the update process of the city code. When was it last done? Why are there inconsistencies as pointed out in this post? VIEW PAGE
3. THE MAYOR WRITES HIS OWN? The current Mayor of Kingston Shayne Gallo recently took a stab at writing his own job description. You’ll see some of the charter language here, but there are many liberties taken – which an elected official cannot do. In addition, there appear to be inconsistencies with what commissions the Mayor is ‘president’ and which he is not. When code that is available online isn’t up-to-date, one might never know. VIEW PAGE
No matter how busy the Mayor’s office is today, a “State of the City” address isn’t an elective. It’s an obligation.
According to the City of Kingston, NY Charter in Article IV: Mayor, Section C4-4 Annual Message it is written that “The Mayor shall prepare and present during the first month of each fiscal year of the City an annual message to the Common Council. The annual message shall describe the condition and state of the city and shall identify matters and issues the Mayor believes should be addressed by the Council in the ensuing year.”
Have a look at “Revising City Charters in NY State” and read the introduction and history of this important document. The charter is “the basic document that defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of city government. It is comparable to the State Constitution and to the Constitution of the United States. The charter is, therefore, the most important law of any city“.
The city of Kingston’s Common Council, on the other hand, has its own set of rules outside of Kingston’s charter.
The “Council Rules for Government” is a document that is not currently available on the City of Kingston website (as far as I can tell, and it should be accessible to the public in the same way the Chater is). I am happy to have received a copy and to make it public here.
In the way of the “State of the City Address” for council members, have a look at page 48, Rule XVII State of the City Address. For some reason, the council found it sound to require “…unanimous consent of the Majority (and Minority) party, the Majority (and Minority) Leader may deliver a State of the City Address at the regularly scheduled Febraury Common Council meeting each year.”
What does that mean? If one alderman decides to vote ‘no’ (as what did occur last week with Ward 2 Alderman Brian Seche), the entire opportunity for the public to hear from their council majority/minority leaders is thrown out the window?
Maybe now is the time to look closer at these documents. The public should take the time to read and get to know both the charter and the council rules so that it collectively understands how its city works from the inside out.
Here are some suggestions:
1. OUR MAYOR: Write and call the Mayor’s office and request that the law be respected, and that the annual ‘State of the City Address” be delivered.
Mayor Shayne Gallo 845/334-3902 firstname.lastname@example.org
Assistant, Ellen DiFalco
2. MAJORITY/MINORITY LEADERS: Write to both our Majority Leader Matt Dunn (Ward 1) and Minority Leader Deb Brown (Ward 9) in support of their performing a ‘State of the City Address” whether it be official, or unofficial.
Alderman Matt Dunn email@example.com
Alderwoman Deb Brown firstname.lastname@example.org
3. ALDERMAN-AT-LARGE JIM NOBLE: Write to Alderman-at-Large Jim Noble and ask him to explain the meaning behind the rule that requires a vote for our Majority/Minority leaders to speak to the public annually on the State of the City.
If a vote is necessary, then ask that the council take up the “Council Rules of Government” and change the ‘unanimous’ to ‘majority’.
Given what happened last week, it’s astonishing that one single vote can derail this opportunity for citizens.
KingstonCitizens.org will host a public educational forum and discussion on “City Administrator and City Manager Forms of Government” on Tuesday, March 25th at the Kingston Public Library 55 Franklin Street, in Kingston NY from 6:00pm – 8:00pm. Panel guests include Meredith Robson, City Administrator of the City of Beacon, NY and Chuck Strome, City Manager of New Rochelle, NY.
Kingston, NY – For the past twenty years, the city of Kingston, NY has what is known as a ‘Strong Mayor’ form of government, where a mayor is elected into office based on popular vote to manage the city’s $36+ million dollar budget, departments, committees, commissions and an aging citywide infrastructure.
KingstonCitizens.org is pleased to present a public educational forum and discussion on two alternative forms of government titled “City Administrator and City Manager Forms of Government” on Tuesday, March 25th from 6:00pm – 8:00pm at the Kingston Public Library located at 55 Franklin Street in Kingston, NY. All are welcome to attend.
Guest panelists include Meredith Robson, City Administrator of the City of Beacon and Chuck Strome, City Manager of New Rochelle, NY to discuss their roles and relationships with the public and elected officials.
The evening will be co-moderated by Rebecca Martin, founder of KingstonCitizens.org and former Executive Director of the Kingston Land Trust and Jennifer Schwartz Berky, Principal at Hone Strategic, LLC and the former Deputy Director of Planning at Ulster County.
Meredith Robson, City of Beacon Administrator: Meredith Robson has served in a variety of governmental positions for over 26 years. She has served in all levels of government, except County government, and her career has spanned three states. She is currently the City Administrator for the City of Beacon. Ms. Robson has been very active in professional associations throughout her career, including serving on the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials Executive Committee and in her current roles as President of the New York City/County Management Association and Northeast Regional Vice President for the International City/County Management Association. Ms. Robson is an ICMA Credentialed Manager and has a Bachelor of Science from Southern Illinois University and a Master of Public Administration from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She has participated in numerous professional development programs, including the following leadership training opportunities: Wallkill Valley Community Leadership Alliance, Leadership Greater Waterbury and Pace University Land Use Leadership Alliance Training Program.
Chuck Strome, New Rochelle, NY City Manager: On November 12, 2002, the City Council unanimously approved the appointment of Charles B. “Chuck” Strome, III as City Manager. Mr. Strome served as Acting City Manager since March 2002 and as Deputy City Manager since 1995. Prior to that, he served as Director of Emergency Services from 1989 through 1992, and then became Assistant City Manager / City Coordinator. Mr. Strome has a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Communications from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and a Masters of Public Administration-Government from Pace University. Before joining government, Mr. Strome held positions at Hudson Westchester Radio where he was News Director, Vice President, and Program Director. Mr. Strome is a member of the International City Managers’ Association, and former president of the New York State City / County Managers Association. He is also past President, Vice President, and Secretary of the Municipal Administrators Association of Metropolitan New York.
About KingstonCitizens.org: KingstonCitizens.org is a non-partisan, citizen-run organization focused on relevant and current issues about Kingston, N.Y and working to foster transparent communication by encouraging growing citizen participation. The founder of KC.org and evening co-moderator Rebecca Martin is a world renowned and critically acclaimed musician who has 25 years of experience as a manager, community organizer and activist.
About Jennifer Schwartz Berky, Principal at Hone Strategic, LLC: Berky, the evening’s co-moderator, has over 25 twenty years of experience in the fields of architecture, conservation, economic development, and urban planning in the non-profit, government, academic and private sectors. Prior to launching Hone Strategic, she served as Deputy Director of Ulster County Planning for over seven years, where she was the lead researcher and liaison to the Ulster County Charter Commission. Before moving to Ulster County, she worked in Washington, DC at the World Bank and Urban Institute, at the University of Rome (Italy) and as a project manager of design and construction for New York City’s major cultural institutions. Berky has lived for extended periods in Argentina, Chile, France, Israel, Italy, and Spain. She earned a B.A. in Art History from SUNY Stony Brook and Masters’ degrees in Urban Planning (M.Phil.) and Real Estate Development (M.S.) at Columbia University, where she is also currently completing a Ph.D. in Urban Planning on the subject of environmental economics.
(This piece was originally printed in the Kingston Times in August of 2013 after a flurry of firings at Kingston City Hall in Kingston, NY. This is an edited version).
“When you find that change is constant, will you shun complacency?” – J. Harris
As a kid, I grew up in a household of ‘activists.’ That’s what my parents were called anyway. It never occurred to me then, or now, that they were anything out of the ordinary. For is it activism or ones duty to shine the light on a problem that lies inside or out of the community?
In the mill town where I am from, my father was a family doctor and my mother a nurse. Together, the two cared for generations of people who one day began to show up at an alarming rate with both common and also extremely rare types of cancers. Wanting to understand this phenomenon led my parents to the discovery of a dioxin contamination that was produced by the mill. A by-product of the bleaching process in papermaking, it’s a severe carcinogen also found in the notorious Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange. All day long, they put out a large pool of muddy dioxin-laced sludge right out in the open. Without good management regulations at that time, it was disposed of by being dumped into the rivers, buried on mountaintops and burned close by. The geography of the area made for a noxious smog that hung over the valley like an impending death sentence. But noone listened.
Years later, my hometown was dubbed “Cancer Valley”. You’d think it to be enough to wake even the staunchest of cynics. But it wasn’t. The industry scurried about to downplay the statistics and public officials obliged. “Those damn elitist activists.” they’d say with their heads buried in the sands.
How do you get away with such a thing?
The people’s needs are simple. They want a job to best utilize their skill set, a roof over their head, food on the table and a good education for their children. With jobs scarce in most rural places, a lack of alternatives allow for easy management of a problem like this. Vocal residents were diminished by threats from their large employer to pack up and leave. Residents without options would resort to nostalgia. “Our town will prosper as it always has”. Even as it slowly bled to death.
Now thirty years later, the town that I knew is barely recognizable. The population has aged out. Young families have moved away. Generations no longer generate. It is necessary today for mill workers to be brought in to keep the mill in business with those who haven’t a connection to the history or the spirit that once was. The wealthy are no longer professionals. They are those who have the means to gobble up foreclosed properties to use as Section 8 housing.
A cautionary tale.
I turned out to be an artist. Things that the average person fear are just a part of ordinary life for me – and so that “fearlessness” and then a knack for organizing make for one hell of a tool chest in these times. Four years after moving into this adopted city of mine (and today, I’m a Kingston resident now for 12 years – the longest I’ve lived anywhere else other than my home town) and shortly after becoming a mom, I became what they call a ‘community organizer’ or ‘activist’ I suppose – and what I found was a gaping hole between the people and city hall that was downright disconcerting. Over the years and with the help of many volunteers and good souls, close to 50 initiatives both large and small to help repair that disconnect were created and diligently worked upon that would serve the public for a long time to come. Those of you who have come along for the ride for the past 8 years know what I’m speaking of.
I’ve been dismayed by recent events in Kingston. The decisions and reactions of our mayor have disappointed me, but it’s not something I haven’t already seen in one form or another in Kingston’s recent past. On first blush, I find my inner dialogue focused on the politicians short comings. But the truth is, that our collective lack of knowledge and resignation in how local government works is where the problem lies.
Furthermore, the people’s collective acceptance of bad behavior from those working on their behalf is mystifying. With such low expectations, what chance is there to develop and attract a greater range of talent and professionalism in high office elected positions?
Starting from the top down, Kingston has what is known as a “strong mayor” form of government. That means that whoever is elected into office essentially has full administrative authority. The people are encouraged to vote ‘across the line’ (promoting lazy voters in my estimation) and your mayor ends up navigating a $36.8 million dollar budget, a population of about 24,000 people and an entire aging citywide infrastructure.
Here’s the thing. He or she isn’t required to have any specific qualifications for a job like this because qualifications is unconstitutional for any elected official. Did you know that? In essence, that means that anyone at all can be your mayor, whether they are experienced in city management or not. Think about that for a moment and try not to panic.
The city charter currently allows ‘mayor’ to appoint department heads and membership to the city’s internal committees without much or in some cases any oversight. They might choose to cast a net to hire the most qualified candidates locally, or enlist those whose merit lies mainly in having helped them to become elected into office. As we have recently witnessed, the latter approach has led to an unprecedented number of firings.
What would be in the public’s best interest is to have an ongoing community discussion on the choices that exist for how a city like ours could be run.
Twenty years ago for a hot minute Kingston actually had a city manager form of government. It was a hard earned effort that was forged by a group of active citizens with the support of the chamber of commerce.There is an article written by Tom Benton that the Kingston Times published describing how it all came to light. Prior to that, the mayor’s role was considered a full time position, but with only part time pay. More of a role had by a retiree with some clout in the community as I understand it.
City Manager wasn’t long lived here in Kingston – as T.R. Gallo, who petitioned at the last minute to reverse the ‘City Manager’ outcome before he himself ran for mayor, strengthening its role to what it is today.
If set up correctly, a city manager could diminish the power of party politics by placing more responsibility on a larger body of elected officials and therefore, placing more control in the hands of the people.
I like that.
How about requiring those newly elected council members to take a course in civics and in Kingston government? (new school board trustees get mandatory training.) Furthermore for our council, what about term limits with a maximum of two terms? It should be a common man’s position. Like jury duty. There is no better way to learn how your local government works than by landing a role in it for a short time. If you find that you have a knack for public service? Run for higher office.
Kingston is in the midst of rewriting its citywide Comprehensive Plan, a process that hasn’t been undertaken since 1961. They are calling it “Kingston 2025” and it’s meant to act as a road map for creating a resilient and sustainable community over the next 12 years. That’s entirely possible given the efforts of a good number of initiatives that have been underway for some time. Kingston citizens, get in there. Give your input and ask that once the new plan is in place, that it is looked at again for proper updates under each new executive office term. That’s every four to five years.
City government is ours and as soon as we are afraid of it, we no longer live in a democracy. What is necessary to make things run smoothly in todays climate is organization, cooperation and different points of view. Be inquisitive, stay current and together make the changes that are needed and available to us.
Did you know that the City of Kingston had once adopted the City Manager form of government?
It’s on our mind these days given the current circumstances at City Hall. For such a small city, casting a net to find qualified candidates for manager who could be hired and (hopefully not, but if necessary) fired too, sounds like a very good idea. There is much irony to the article given the events of today. Read on.
We’d like to know what you think. There are certainly pros and cons to a City Manager form of government. But there are pros and cons to a ‘Strong’ Mayor form of government too.
How Kingston got its ‘strong mayor’
Commentary/ Tom Benton
(originally printed in the KINGSTON TIMES)
This is how it actually went down, nearly 20 years ago. I should know; I was there. In fact, in a way I was caught up right in the middle of it all, though that was not my intention.
Some time around 1992, Kingston Mayor John Amarello got to thinking that the city’s charter, which hadn’t been modified since the late 1800s, could use a little updating. Maybe it was those provisions prohibiting displays of magic and legerdemain (sleight of hand) on city streets that got him thinking, or the ones dealing with where horses could be tied up. In any event, the mayor decided that it would be useful for someone to take a look at the charter to see if some modernizing might be in order.
And so it was that he decided to create a Charter Revision Commission to tackle the task. John — I knew him well enough to call him by his first name — approached me about acting as chairman of the committee. At the time, I was a young attorney practicing in Kingston, very much involved with various civic groups and friendly with many of the business and governmental figures in town. And best of all from the mayor’s standpoint (or so I believe now), I had no political axe to grind. I have never sought or held elective office (unless you count student council in high school) and had no aspirations to do so then. So I think the mayor felt that I would be somewhat free from the rough-and-tumble of local, partisan politics. If I may say so, they don’t get more fractious anywhere than they do in Kingston (with the possible exception of the recent debt ceiling imbroglio in Washington).
With some reservations about the time commitment it would involve, I signed on, so to speak, along with a half-dozen or so other local appointees. Significantly, one of those original members was then-alderman T. R. Gallo, who resigned from the commission after several meetings (more about that later). We set about our work at frequent evening sessions, studying the charter of Kingston along with those of other similarly sized small cities. As it happened, I was also then the president of the board of directors of the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce. Some chamber members I knew believed that the “city manager” form of local government was preferable to the traditional model, theoretically being more efficient and business-like, and they encouraged me to introduce that concept into our discussions.
A brief overview of the “city manager” form: Traditionally in the U.S., most governments, be they state, county, city, village or town, have followed the federal model, wherein three branches (executive, legislative and judicial) regulate the entity’s affairs. This structure is designed to provide checks and balances on the uses and potential abuses of power. By the beginning of the 20th century, progressives started to wonder whether all that power-balancing was really needed at the smaller and more local levels of government. Couldn’t the legislative body (city council) just hire an executive to conduct the administrative affairs of the community? After all, the council has its own internal checks and balances built in by virtue of its multiple members. It was also thought a hired executive, with specific training and expertise, would provide better and more efficient operation than might be expected from an elected mayor who, well-liked and popular though he or she might be, usually has no real training for the job.
I don’t remember the number of meetings we had, but in the course of many weeks, a consensus began to build in the direction of the “city manager” form. I believe that this was about the time Mr. Gallo bowed out. Be that as it may, after months of meetings and many hours of discussion and debate, the commission ultimately finalized a proposed revised charter for the City of Kingston, incorporating the city manager concept. This was submitted to the city for consideration and potential adoption.
During the spring and summer of 1993, the charter revision commission held a number of public information meetings throughout the city, so residents would have the opportunity to learn about the new proposal. These were well-attended and aroused great interest and passion on both sides. In due course, and in accordance with the required procedure, Kingston’s Common Council approved the submission of the proposed charter revision to the local board of elections so that it could be placed on the ballot as a referendum item to be voted on in the fall of 1993. Supporters of the measure conducted an aggressive grass-roots campaign, handing out flyers door-to-door in Kingston neighborhoods and taking out ads in local newspapers. On Election Day, the revision was approved.
Those of us who had been active in the revision process, including prominent local business figures like Frank Bailey, George Hutton, George Bell and others, were celebratory. But it should be admitted that there was no certainty about how well the “city manager” form of government would work in Kingston. The “city manager” form had been quite successful in some cities — Austin, Texas, for example — but arguably less so in others. And the work of transition still lay ahead, as the new charter structure was to take effect in January 1995.
As it happened, the 1993 vote also brought about the defeat of the incumbent Republican mayor, John Amarello, by the Democratic candidate, T.R. Gallo. It was no secret that T.R. had long dreamed of becoming Kingston’s mayor. His late father was a fixture in Kingston politics two decades earlier. The new charter preserved the office of mayor, but significantly reduced his or her official duties and authority to what might fairly be characterized as “ribbon-cutter in chief.” This was far from what the newly elected mayor had envisioned for himself.
After a few weeks, then-alderman-at-large, James Sottile, responsibly formed an ad hoc committee to work on the transition process and to begin the search for a city manager. Because of my past involvement with the new charter, I was invited to participate in that group as a citizen member at meetings throughout the winter of 1993-94. Some time in the spring, word began circulating in Kingston about a new proposal which would supplant the recently adopted city manager charter by providing for a so-called “strong mayor” — an elected mayor with greater authority than is traditionally found. The document itself soon surfaced as Mayor Gallo began a public petition campaign to place the new charter revision proposal on the 1994 ballot as a referendum item.
To place a referendum on the ballot (an alternative to the mayoral commission procedure) requires the signatures of certain percentage of the affected voting public. Even for a mayor as popular as T.R. Gallo, this was a large undertaking, particularly in the turbulent wake of the previous year and a half of charter debates. 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!
By late August, it appeared that the petition campaign would fall short of the required number of signatures. With time was running out to meet the filing deadline for the fall vote, Mayor Gallo hastily created a his own charter revision commission, whose appointed members immediately adopted the new “strong mayor” proposal without discussion or debate. A single public information meeting (a half-hour in duration) was held a few days later at City Hall and in short order, the “strong mayor” charter was submitted to the board of elections for placement on the ballot. As I recall, all of this took place in the space of less than two weeks.
With Election Day looming, there ensued an intense period of public debate and a visible war of lawn signs. Things took a turn toward the uncivil. At a public information meeting sponsored by The League of Women Voters, I was loudly and aggressively heckled throughout my presentation by a small group of partisans. Such was the tone and tenor of the time.
Many Kingstonians will remember the outcome. In one of the largest voter turnouts in city history, the “strong mayor” charter revision was passed into law. Although the margin of victory was narrow (around a hundred votes, as I recollect), 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.
Disappointed as some of us were, we all moved on. But the city manager issue has recently resurfaced in comments by some Kingston mayoral candidates. Knowledge of historical precedent can be instructive, so perhaps the foregoing will be useful to some. For others, it might merely be an interesting story. I do note that the county has recently changed to an “executive” structure. If Kingston does decide to revisit the city manager concept, it is hoped that the residents display the political will to give it a fair chance the second time around.
Tom Benton is a retired attorney who owns and operates the Tom Benton School of Music in Woodstock.
Mayor James Sottile said — according to the Daily Freeman in this article — that he was working with a private firm to test a new curbside recycling operation. Sounds great, but it would be best if the mayor had informed other lawmakers of his decision.