Kingston Times: Mayor or Manager?

Kingston Times 3

“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.”

 

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.”

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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.   

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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.

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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“.

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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

KingstonCitizens.org Hosts Public Educational Forum and Discussion on City Administrator and City Manager Forms of Government on Tuesday, March 25th.

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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.

For more information, contact Rebecca Martin at: rebbytunes@earthlink.net

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Our Panelists

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.

Our Moderators

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.

 

MORE ON – Kingston: “Strong Mayor” or “City Manager” Form of Government?

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(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).

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“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.

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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.

Take a look sometime at the City of Kingston’s charter and read Article IV: Mayor “General Powers and Duties.”  The executive duties are light at best.

Compare that to municipalities with a City Manager (Oneonta, NY) or City Administrator (Beacon, NY).  Pretty astonishing don’t you think?

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.

– Rebecca Martin

 

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

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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.

Seed Money for Parks

The dusk sky at Hasbrouck Park.

By Arthur Zaczkiewicz

The spat between the mayor and lawmakers over spending money on a gazebo at T.R. Gallo Park in the Rondout, as reported by the Daily Freeman today, can be easily resolved.

According to the Freeman, Mayor James Sottile is miffed over a decision by the Finance/Economic Development Committee to table — for a second time — his $4,000 request for installing the gazebo.

Read more…

Why Residents Must Continue to Recycle

With the abrupt change made this week to the recycling schedule (that is now bi-weekly) we grew deeply concerned. Not because we think weekly pick-ups are ‘the way to go’. But because the change was made without any effort to inform or educate the public. As it is, through the hard work of Julie and Steve Noble and Jeanne Edwards, Kingston was sort of on the up and up on improving it’s recycling numbers. That might be history unless something is done and soon.

Sure, not every municipality offers recycling to their residents. That may even be where we are heading. The fact of the matter is, Kingston has offered it as a service and we have come to expect it. If more people now feel inconvenienced and decide to trash their plastics and all, we are not only heading in the wrong direction but we are also encouraging a whopper of an expense in the long run.

Why? At this time, Kingston pays UCRRA (Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency) $71 a ton to then ship our garbage up the river some 250 miles. That’s what makes it so expensive. Weigh that against the national average, which is around $42.08 per ton.

Landfills are close to capacity. Perhaps not this year or next, but in the very near future our garbage may be shipped even further away. Now does that make any sense?

So please, hold onto your recycling until your new scheduled pick-up day. Give your bottles and cans an extra wash out to prepare them to sit for a week longer. That only takes a few seconds of your time. If you simply can’t wait, delivering your recyclables, yard waste and brush to the transfer station is free.

Encourage your Alderman to help solve this problem through good discussion and solid examples by looking outside of Kingston to see what might be useful to us.

– Rebecca Martin

Here are a couple of helpful links.

City of Kingston: New Recycling/Yard Waste Pick-Up Schedule

KingstonCitizens.org: Why Pay As You Throw?

KingstonCitizens.org: Plastics By Numbers

Leave It On The Lawn, Kingston! Mulching and Composting Brochure

More On a Council-Manager Form Of Government and Term Limits

It’s empowering to learn more on the Council-Manager form of government. Below was taken from the ICMA’s website. Visit this LINK to get resources and to learn more on the subject.

Certainly, if this is too radical for some then we should at least begin a discussion on term limits (see: Rotation in office) on all elected positions in Kingston right away.

It’s up to the citizens now to move towards a government that works. What do you want to do that is productive and helpful?

I suggest we begin at the core right here at home.

– Rebecca Martin

The collection of articles, statistics, and other information—grouped below as ICMA’s Council-Manager Form Resource Packet—will assist you in helping residents, elected officials, and business leaders within your community gain a better understanding of the value that professional management brings to our cities and towns.

ICMA’s origins lie in the council-manager form of local government, which combines the strong political leadership of elected officials (in the form of a council, board, or other governing body) with the strong professional experience of an appointed local government manager or administrator. Under this form, power is concentrated in the elected council, which hires a professional administrator to implement its policies. These highly-trained, experienced individuals serve at the pleasure of the elected governing body and have responsibility for preparing the budget, directing day-to-day operations, hiring and firing personnel, and serving as the council’s chief policy advisor.

Although ICMA actively promotes the council-manager form as the preferred structure, the organization also supports professional management in all forms of local government.

We invite you to use these materials as part of your council-manager form adoption and retention efforts. Click on the link to the packet components and you will be taken to ICMA’s Resource Center, where you will find a description of the material and one or more downloads. In addition to the materials contained in the Council-Manager Form Resource packet, scroll further down this page for a list of other resources, or contact Jared Dailey, assistant program manager, at jdailey@icma.org, for more information on form-of-government issues.

Launching an educational or promotional effort in support of the council-manager form can be difficult, but we hope you find these materials useful. Thank you for helping ICMA advocate the value of professional local government management and good luck with your efforts

Part Three: Q & A with Ward 9’s Hayes Clement

Ward 9 Alderman Hayes Clement

Dear Readers,

This is the third of three pieces to help residents get to know their incoming Alderman with insight on those helping to shape our neighborhoods and common council in 2010.

Get active!

– RM

Arthur Zackziewicz: What do you see as the top, long-term challenges facing the City of Kingston?

Hayes Clement:  An unsustainable tax burden – on both homeowners and businesses. We’ve got to fundamentally reorient the mindset of local governments – city, school and county — from their current holy grail, keeping your annual tax increase as small as possible, to one that actually plots a path toward reducing your taxes, as difficult as that is in New York State.

City Hall, for one, has made real progress on the budget front this past year, but still more discipline, creativity and tough decisions are going to be required to bring spending into line with the simple economic realities of where we stand today: a declining population, shrinking household income levels and very shaky employment and housing markets. Old news? Not if you were a stranger to Kingston and had been ordered to describe the city using only our annual budget as your guide. Some of our expenses, particularly in the realm of employee benefits and pensions (fully $11 million of a $35 million annual budget), are truly sobering. And that’s before you even get to the “real” money – the equivalent tabs for public schools and county government. At the end of the day, when potential newcomers consider the total tax burden attached to setting up home or shop in Kingston, the results of the exercise too often shout “no way” – especially for prospective business investors.

Our “homestead/non-homestead” tax policy, which taxes commercial properties at significantly higher rates than homes, is in dire need of rethinking. It is steadily eroding the city’s commercial tax base and private-sector job market – literally emptying entire blocks of storefronts — and practically begs business owners to consider greener pastures, an especially dangerous gambit when that greener pasture might be found just a few hundred feet down Albany Avenue in the Town of Ulster.

The immediate source of distress for many tax payers remains, of course, the citywide property revaluation conducted by the city and GAR Associates several years ago. While serious flaws and inequities are apparent in the results produced so far, I consider this a near-term, not long-term, problem and one that has to be fixed, also in the near-term, in favor of over-assessed property owners.

A disproportionate share of poverty and its related problems. For years, we’ve all heard or read the complaint that indigent families in need of public assistance are routinely “dumped” in Ulster County by other less charitable (and less law-abiding) communities, from as far away as Pennsylvania. Based on my own conversations with veteran social-service and law-enforcement professionals in the area, I think the accusation is a credible one — certainly credible enough to warrant a full investigation by County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach and local Department of Social Services officials. If an investigation yields substantive evidence of the illegal practice, the county should forward the matter to the state Attorney General or other officials for help in halting the practice and seeking financial redress. If an investigation yields nothing, a finding to that effect might at least help dispel a pervasive local suspicion.
One thing is indisputable, though, in terms of poverty’s migration: Once here, the great majority of Ulster County “safety net” recipients settle in Kingston, for obvious reasons (public transportation, proximity to service agencies, etc.) but with serious financial consequences for Kingston tax payers. Alone among 62 counties in New York State, Ulster County requires that the home city or township of a safety-net recipient bear half the cost of those benefits, with the state providing the other half. In every other county, the funding formula splits the cost 50-50 between the state and the county, regardless of the recipient’s city of residence. The consequences of this for Kingston start with a sizable and growing financial burden — $1.2 million in safety net spending this year, up from $400,000 seven years ago — that by every right should be spread county-wide but, instead, is borne solely by Kingston tax payers. Not only do we take in the county’s disadvantaged, we take on the entire local portion of the bill, solo, for meeting that challenge. For Kingston at this stage, the money, the jobs and the sheer tally of local lives all caught up in the safety net are of such a scale that “poverty” is not just a local problem anymore, it’s a local industry, too . . . . and a growing one. Many of its enterprises are well-respected and successful; its “executive ranks” include some of the best and brightest leaders in Kingston; and most of its clients are deserving and law-abiding neighbors, no doubt. But none of that obliges Kingston to politely ignore the obvious: “Poverty, the industry” also reaches deep into the city’s real-estate market, driving demand for subdivided houses, changing the character of entire neighborhoods, and often undermining public safety, quality of life and, ultimately, our ability to attract other new residents and businesses. In the wake of recent and disturbing street crimes, the plainly visible deterioration of more Kingston neighborhoods, and Ulster County’s continued refusal to do the right thing and cover its safety net obligations, it’s time for Kingston to take a compassionate but clear-headed new look at local poverty, and confront a delicate but urgent question: How big a burden can one struggling city be expected to bear on behalf of other communities, and at what cost to its own quality of life and its own future?

An aging infrastructure. It’s awful to contemplate, but today’s woes might pale in comparison to the fiscal challenges coming at us in the next decade, with millions of dollars in capital improvements required to make over crumbling streets and sidewalks and, more ominously, rebuild much of our century-old sewer system. Getting through it all, at the lowest possible cost, will require, for starters, that the mayor and Common Council maintain both our strong municipal bond rating and the credibility with lenders that comes from setting conservative annual spending plans and sticking to them.

Embarrassingly low standards – when it comes to so many aspects of our shared civic life: the quality of services we demand for our tax dollars, the caliber of behavior we’re willing to tolerate on public streets, the general appearance and cleanliness of entire blocks and neighborhoods, to name but a few. I’m always struck by an insight you often hear from plugged-in Kingstonians, the very people you would call the city’s boosters. It goes like this: “Sure that’s a problem here, but we’re in far better shape on that score than Newburgh.” (or Poughkeepsie, or Middletown – take your pick) It’s a response that’s accurate for just about any problem being discussed, no doubt, and let’s hope it remains so. But if “not-as-bad-as-over-THERE” is going to be our benchmark for survival, let alone success, we’re all in deep trouble.

Upstate New York has enormous challenges on many fronts, but Kingston has unique assets that set it far apart from other cities in the region. We lose sight of this all too quickly, especially in an economic climate that serves up setbacks and disappointments on a weekly basis. It’s a mistake. The best-laid plans for more prosperous times are usually laid well ahead of their arrival. We need to focus on getting our act together now, ahead of an economic upturn, by re-focusing on the basics: cleaning up the city, cracking down on crime and blight, and cutting back on a cost structure that’s outgrown our ability to pay for it. If we do this, and steadily raise our expectations to better match our gifts, we can lay the foundation for a safer, more affordable and more attractive Kingston that can very logically become the gotta-visit, the gotta-move-to community in the Hudson Valley, a Kingston that legitimately plays in the same league as a Savannah, Ga., or a Burlington, Vt., or an Asheville, N.C. – take your pick — when it comes to luring new investment, not a Kingston that measures itself by the yardstick of Newburgh.

AZ: Despite the challenges, Kingston is often described as a “vibrant city” that has much potential. Do you agree? What are some of the city’s most promising opportunities?

HC: Of the many opportunities open to Kingston, I think a few stand out as particularly plausible over the next 2-3 years:

• We can make better strategic use of UPAC as the potential economic anchor for Midtown, ensuring that its doors remain open and able to deliver 1,200 regular concert-goers to new and existing restaurants and bars throughout the calendar year. Redevelopment of the adjacent King’s Inn site as a large mixed-use live/work loft-style complex for artists, musicians and production technologists would bring a healthy new sense of life and activity to the area and help drive awareness of an already significant, but hidden, professional music scene in Kingston.

• We can leverage the experience and hard work of the KingstonDigitalCorridor.org initiative in other fields of potential economic growth, using local entrepreneurs to sell Kingston peer to peer within their industries. One example: a targeted, grass-roots effort aimed at luring select art-supply manufacturers and working artists from Brooklyn or other locales, drawing on the embedded experience and customer traffic of R&F Paints, Bailey Ceramics and the Shirt Factory.

• We can devise a “green” strategy that focuses on job creation. Ongoing efforts by City Hall and the Conservation Advisory Council continue to help reduce our collective impact on the environment. That’s great. But we should give equal priority to devising a front-and-center role for Kingston in the region’s Solar Energy Consortium, both as a pilot site for solar installations on public buildings and, better yet, as a target locale for consortium-backed startups, via tax breaks and other incentives. What better way to demonstrate the urban applications for solar power or the benefits of recycling on a mammoth scale than through the conversion of empty commercial buildings into manufacturing sites for solar technology?

• We can finally develop a new comprehensive plan for Kingston, one that untangles, updates and spells out zoning laws, zoning overlays, historic designations and reasonable design standards for Midtown and Uptown, much as we’ve recently done for Downtown. This is essential not only to protect the heritage, charm and integrity of our neighborhoods (the biggest and best currency we’ve got when it comes to economic development!) but also to attract new investment. The developers who reject Kingston as a place to invest don’t do so because we’re overly fussy about historic preservation; they by-pass Kingston because our planning process is perceived as non-transparent, unpredictable and ad hoc. Making it less so will only help preserve our heritage and grow our tax base.

• We can radically improve the first impression we make with visitors — by easily extending the popular U.S. 209 rail trail from Hurley all the way into Uptown, and further remaking the Washington Avenue corridor with open green space and proper landscaping in place of abandoned gas stations. (Our own civic pride could use the visual boost, too.)

AZ: Some residents have expressed a need for Kingston to file for bankruptcy as a way to get some fiscal breathing room and allow contracts to be renegotiated. Do you support such a move? Why or why not?

HC:   Bankruptcy is probably not an option for Kingston, practically speaking, since taking that route would require approval by the state legislature and only after our “taxing capacity” was exhausted. By the predictable logic of Albany, Kingston’s municipal tax levy is still well below what we could legally force property owners to cough up in order to remain solvent, so until taxes are raised to Mt. Everest levels and we’re scrounging for the last nickels and dimes beneath homeowners’ sofa cushions, don’t count on Albany to entertain the notion of a Kingston bankruptcy.

And I’m fine with that. I didn’t seek a seat on the Common Council in order to help preside at a municipal bankruptcy. And I think every member of the Council would consider that particular outcome a singular mark of failure on his or her resume.

That said, the financial situation we face is extraordinarily serious. Correcting it will depend, in large part, on how we approach the renegotiation of union contracts for police, fire and DPW and City Hall professionals set to expire at the end of 2011. The mayor has indicated he plans to include members of the Common Council in various stages of discussion and negotiation with the three unions, and I think that’s the right approach, particularly since contract wage and benefits agreements for city employees and retirees represent fully 75% of the city’s $35 million annual budget. Whatever terms finally emerge from the negotiation process, it won’t qualify as a success overall, in my book, unless several key “wins” are achieved for tax payers:

• New flexibility on the part of both union members and management in the way departments are manned and job responsibilities are defined, with a particular emphasis on putting more police officers on the street at critical times each day, and cross-training more firefighters to act as building-code enforcement teams during otherwise idle periods.

• Realistic contributions by employees toward their health-care plans

• Salary and pension schedules, going forward, that recognize and respect hard – often hazardous – work performed by professionals, but also bear some semblance to the realities of the typical Kingston tax payer who’s struggling to foot the bill.

AZ: Residents have expressed publicly and privately that your election into office reflects a need for new thinking and new perspectives in city government. Do you agree with this? If yes, how do you implement some of that fresh perspective?

HC:  * I certainly like to think my election signals openness to new approaches on the part of voters. I’m sure my two other fellow freshmen on the Council agree. Delivering on that promise will depend, in large part, on our powers of resistance – namely the ability to resist giving in to conventional wisdom and the accepted pattern of how things are, once we’ve been on the Council a few more months. Complacency, or even abundant patience, are not what you want in a Council member these days.

AZ:  Could you list three of the best reasons to live and work in Kingston?

HC:   Small businesses that give great service, break the generic cookie-cutter mold and prove, despite all the challenges, that Kingston can attract and sustain entrepreneurs. My list of favorites includes Eng’s, Seven21 Media, Oxclove, Signature Fitness, Fleisher’s, Tonner Doll, Madden’s Wine & Spirits, Savonna’s, Monkey Joe’s, Stone Soup, Smith Printing and BestPlaces2Move.com.

* Our proximity to the Hudson River, the Catskills and New York City – for my money, perhaps the three most extraordinary features of the North American landscape.

* The quality and variety of our amazing – and reasonably priced — housing stock. Where else but in Kingston could you visit one street, Fair, and in the space of a 10-minute walk observe at least one example of every single significant period in American architecture, starting in the late 1600s with a stone meeting house and proceeding through all the great design eras — Gothic, Greek Revival, Victorian, Italianate, Colonial Revival, Tudor, and other more obscure styles – all the way to a 1960s ranch house?