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January 8, 2011

Strengthening Oneonta city government: Revising our city charter

David Rissberger

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A city charter, like the federal Constitution, defines the overall organizational structure and key roles and responsibilities for government operations. For the past year a group of Oneonta city residents has been working to understand our city government operations and develop suggestions for improvements to our guiding city charter. We are now beginning to consolidate and finalize our recommendations.

Our task was identified as a priority by the city's updated Comprehensive Plan, completed under Mayor John Nader, who later established the Charter Revision Commission. Additional members have been appointed by Mayor Dick Miller. The commission's mandate is to offer its suggested charter revisions to Oneonta voters for an up-or-down vote on the general election ballot in November 2011.

Starting our work in January 2010, the commission's first task was to understand current government operations. We attended many meetings of the Common Council and its committees, and held a broad series of discussions with current and past city aldermen, mayors and appointed city officials and department heads. We also attended meetings of standing city commissions and boards and spoke with a range of their leaders and members.

Working in subcommittees, we carefully analyzed our current densely written 49-page charter, last substantively revised more than 45 years ago, and compared its structure and detailed provisions to a cross-section of charters of similar cities throughout New York. We have held 15 open-to-the-public full commission meetings and two public forums.

The picture that has emerged is of a committed city government leadership team that strives to get the job done in spite of charter gaps and inconsistencies. From our research and discussions, we have reached two clear consensus points:

1) The current charter is a user-unfriendly document. On a variety of key issues it offers confusing, contradictory, overly detailed, inconsistent or outdated guidance. Our goal is to have our charter be a concise document that lays out a clear overall framework, with appropriate flexibility, for our elected leadership to efficiently guide policy and oversee city operations in the 21st century. We believe a good city charter should be readily understood by a high school civics class, not just specialists or lawyers.

2) Oneonta would benefit from the creation of a new senior administrative position. The City of Oneonta is a public corporation, with a $20 million annual budget. City aldermen spend many hours dealing with urgent but minor administrative or budget-management issues. City government functions are hampered by confusing roles and responsibilities for policy formulation and city operations. Many department heads face confusing and inefficient upward reporting and supervisory lines. We are convinced that the city would reap many financial and performance benefits from the addition of a qualified professional city administrator or city manager. This senior executive officer would be responsible to our elected officials. He or she would administer day-to-day city business and free up aldermen and the mayor to address important policy and planning issues.

In the next phase of our work, the commission will work with city leaders and fellow citizens to:

"¢ Make recommendations for the specific duties and responsibilities of this new position; elaborate how this position will support the work of the Common Council and mayor; and build the case for how creating this new position is a good investment in Oneonta's future

"¢ Translate the commission's findings and recommendations into a reconfigured charter document. This work will be supported by the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials and the Government Law Center of Albany Law School.

The commission's next public forum is scheduled for Feb. 9 at 7 p.m. in the Embury Room at the First United Methodist Church, 66 Chestnut St., Oneonta. We look forward to concerned citizens attending and helping us position our city for future success.

David Rissberger is chairman of the Oneonta City Charter Commission.