Why Elected Officials Can’t Craft Their Own Job Descriptions.

1920583_250773298438676_1910868062_n“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.

Recently (maybe even this past week) the Mayor’s office  generated a definition of the Mayor’s role and posted it on the City of Kingston’s website.   

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.

In 1993, a commission of volunteers led by Tom Benton worked hard for two years to update the charter in its entirety, ushering in a City Manager form of government.  It went to a referendum and passed by hundreds of votes – a big deal in Kingston.

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

REFERENCES

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 ALDERMAN to 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

“State of the City Address”. A Mayors Obligation and How Kingston’s City Charter is Similar in Nature to the Constitution.

1920583_250773298438676_1910868062_n
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.

…and no matter how sympathetic to the Mayor one may be (and in all fairness, I am – as I think it’s far too large a job for only one person – hence, my desire to learn more on City Manager/City Administrator Forms of Government),  it may not be legal for an elected official to not follow the charter as written. That certainly should be looked into.

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    sgallo@kingston-ny.gov
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    ward1@kingston-ny.gov
Alderwoman Deb Brown   ward9@kingston-ny.gov

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.

– Rebecca Martin

RESOURCES

GET TO KNOW Kingston, NY City Charter   READ

GET TO KNOW Revising City Charters in New York State  READ

GET TO KNOW The Council Rules of Government  READ

How Kingston Got It’s “Strong Mayor” Form of Government.

council-manager
This image was used from the Bainbridge Voter. Click on the image to learn more.

Did you know that in 1993, the City of Kingston  adopted (by a landslide) a City Manager form of government?   This is a great old article that helps us to understand what happened back then and also how we ended up with a strong mayor form of government.

Thanks to Tom Benton and Ulster Publishing for allowing us to repost this article.

 

How Kingston got its ‘strong mayor’
Commentary by 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.