This week’s “My turn”
column is by Oneonta Mayor
John S. Nader.
It is long past time
to review, revise and
rewrite our city charter.
The document is obsolete and too often hinders rather than facilitates effective, representative government.
As New York’s Department of State notes, “A good charter should provide a clear distribution of the powers of city government and a clear description of the duties and powers of municipal officials.” Our charter does neither.
Therefore, consistent with New York State Home Rule Law, I intend this year to establish a charter review commission.
The commission should review the entire charter and prepare a new or significantly revised version. Our charter diffuses authority among numerous entities without sufficiently empowering those who assume dayto- day responsibility for public administration and policy.
Simply put, the document’s lines of accountability are unrealistic, the duties of elected officials are obscure; it establishes a chief executive position without sufficiently empowering the office.
A citizen can read the city charter and find that Oneonta’s form of government defies description.
Although the city’s form of government has at times been called a weak-mayor system, this characterization is inaccurate.
It is far more accurate to view the charter as the by-product of the early 20th century, when many localities empowered boards and commissions whose members were certainly conscientious, but plainly unelected. In fact, the most significant of those commissions no longer even exist.
Unlike our federal constitution, which provides a clear separation of powers, the city charter seems as likely to confuse as to clarify.
In one instance the lines of authority overlap so wildly that within two paragraphs, the charter actually requires the supervisor of parks and streets to report to four separate entities: a board, a commission, the city engineer and the mayor.
Another element of the charter is nearly comical. Among the few explicit duties delegated to individual Common Council members is to serve as “fence viewers” who “shall possess all the powers and authority in respect to the division of fences or walls within their ward …”
In other instances, the duties enumerated for some of the appointed boards and commission are better defined and detailed than those of the elected Common Council members. Sadly, the process for adopting a city budget is almost as quaint and dated as the fence viewers’ role.
Indeed, the formal role of the mayor _ the one city-wide elected official _ in the budget formulation process is quite limited. More importantly, the budget provisions of the charter still include a role for commissions that have long since been disbanded.
A city charter is plainly not a topic that prompts significant attention. So why does it matter? Our charter is simply not adequate to the needs of a modern, progressive city. Officials from other municipalities are startled to learn of the fragmentation that can frustrate timely action here.
A modern charter should empower city officials, particularly the chief executive, to act on behalf of their constituents. The mayor is designated as the chief executive and charged with “exerting a constant supervision and control over ... all city officers,” but is provided neither the time nor the means to do so.
More importantly, the vital roles of a modern mayor in working with other levels of government, sustaining the city’s tax base and infrastructure, stewarding its cultural and natural resources, and establishing and implementing a vision and direction for the city are crucial but completely unrecognized.
The time for charter review is now. Changes both simple and substantial are needed. City officials attempted this without success in both the 1960s and 1970s.
In reviewing the minutes from the commission that worked in the late 1970s, it is clear that many of those elected and appointed officials who spoke before the commission agreed that the present structure is more likely to restrain prompt and timely action in the public interest than to facilitate such action.
Now more than ever, the current environment should prompt us to look to the future. Real transformations are at work. We see this daily in government, in some neighborhoods, and in the rapidly changing economic environment.
We are not immune to these trends. In the coming years, many cities will find it increasingly difficult to sustain basic infrastructure and services. Even an economic recovery by itself will not return us to a comfortable place from the past.
Charter revision is no substitute for having conscientious elected officials who serve the common good rather than narrow, parochial interests. Clearly the original authors of the charter knew this.
However, the organizational structure of city government needs to be adjusted so that we can better serve our citizens and our posterity. Now that we have celebrated our centennial, let’s turn our attention to making the charter of the city consistent with the need for government to be responsive, nimble and efficient.
It is long overdue.
To write for “My turn,” contact Daily Star Publisher Tanya Shalor at email@example.com or 432-1000, ext. 214.