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June 25, 2011

Changes to city charter will be good for Oneonta


The Oneonta Charter Review Commission

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The Oneonta Charter Review Commission appreciated the opportunity to present the first full draft of the proposed Oneonta City Charter to the mayor and Common Council on June 7, and to a League of Women Voters forum on June 21.

This first draft is the next step in a process stretching back more than a year, during which the commission has:

"¢ interviewed former mayors, council members and department heads;"¢ compared the present charter with how city government actually works;"¢ held several public hearings;"¢ studied charters of over a dozen other cities similar to Oneonta in New York state;"¢ invited mayors, city managers and council members to Oneonta to learn from them; and

"¢ spent several months arriving at this draft.

As the process continues, as the commission will hold numerous briefings and public meetings with citizens and officials to gain further input and suggestions and to make modifications. The final draft will not be completed until September, and then will be put before voters in November. We welcome comments and questions from both city officials and residents.

As expected, most interest has centered on our proposal to provide a city manager for Oneonta. The commission feels strongly that, under the present charter, the Common Council is seriously overburdened having both to set policy for city government and to supervise its administration, and effective administration of an $18 million government is too much for a part-time mayor.

The best solution is a city manager, a full-time top administrator who will head up a new leadership team of city departmental directors, and who will be hired by the Common Council and report to the council.

Having a city manager will strengthen the Common Council by freeing it from the micromanagement of running the city on a day-to-day basis, enabling council members to focus on making policy. The council will have more time to think about how to solve our biggest problems and about what we want Oneonta to look like in the future. Most former mayors and many present and former council members agree with this recommendation.

The proposed charter retains a strong part-time mayor who presides over the Common Council. The mayor will remain the one elected official in the city who represents all the citizens of Oneonta.

Everyone from cities with a city manager stressed two points: one, clear and continuous communication by the city manager with the mayor and Common Council is vital; and two, if the council finds the city manager not complying with its wishes, it may fire the manager. Checks and balances are built into the draft charter, with the council ultimately in charge.

Other questions that have been raised include:

"¢ How would the city budget be prepared?

The mayor and council will set budget parameters, but the actual preparation will start with the departments under the direction of the director of finance (the present chamberlain), a process supervised by the city manager. The final budget will be decided, as now, by the mayor and council.

"¢ How would city employees be hired and fired?

The city manager will have these powers, which are not clearly stated in the present charter. The present and former mayors and many council members agree the city manager should have those responsibilities. Our recommendation is based on the need to simplify and clarify city employees' complex supervisory lines. City employees' legal job protections will not change.

"¢ Would the city manager be too strong, diminishing the role of department heads?

Oneonta is fortunate to be served by dedicated, capable department heads and employees. However, the challenge every city faces is to have all departments operating in smooth coordination with one another within the framework of city-wide policy and priorities set by the mayor and Common Council. The addition of a city manager will enhance the role of department heads by providing them expert and professional leadership, support and supervision — important functions that cannot be expected from a part-time mayor and Common Council.

The Charter Commission looks forward eagerly to more meetings with city officials, employees and citizens to gain further input and improve the present draft. Several public meetings on the draft charter will be held in coming weeks, focusing on the city's wards. That schedule will be announced soon. The public is invited to any or all of these meetings.

The next Charter Commission meeting, open to the public, will be 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 6, in the Council Chamber of City Hall at 258 Main St.

Copies of the draft charter are available from the City Clerk's office in City Hall and at Huntington Memorial Library. The draft may be viewed and downloaded online at http://www.oneonta.ny.us/government/chartercommissionpage.asp. Questions and comments may be telephoned to 431-1351.

This commentary was submitted by Paul Scheele on behalf of the Oneonta Charter Review Commission. The commission is chaired by Dave Rissberger. Other members are Scheele, John Dudek, Martha Forgiano, Karen Geasey, Tom Kelly, Steve Londner, Larry Malone, Sarah Patterson, Kathryn Stuligross and Laurie Zimniewicz. Kathy Wolverton, city personnel director, serves as non-voting liaison to the commission.