ITHACA, NY -- Big changes could be coming to the structure of Ithaca city government. At the April 28 City Administration Committee meeting, a subcommittee charged by the mayor at the beginning of the year, proposed moving from a mayor-council government to a council-manager government.
A mayor-council government, the closest to the way Ithaca operates, has a mayor elected separately from the council who is often full-time and paid with significant administrative and budgetary authority. The council is elected and maintains legislative powers, and some cities with this type of government appoint a professional manager who maintains limited administrative authority, which would be similar to Ithaca’s chief of staff Dan Cogan (who is stepping down this month). It’s the second most common form of municipal government and is most commonly found in larger, older cities or in very small cities.
In a council-manager government, the city council oversees the general administration, makes policies, sets the budgets and appoints a professional city manager to carry out day-to-day administrative operations. The mayor in this form is usually chosen from among the council on a rotating basis. This is the most common form of government and is common in cities with populations over 10,000 people. This is also essentially how the Tompkins County Legislature works. The legislature appoints a county administrator, and the legislative chair is elected from within the legislature, not by the public.
City Administration Committee chair Deb Mohlenhoff outlined a few of the challenges the current mayor-council government has, such as the fact the mayor is currently responsible for managing more than 400 employees across 11 departments, while simultaneously overseeing 18 city facilities that cover a wide range of activity and infrastructure, and preparing and administering a $79 million budget.
An elected mayor is not required to have relevant administrative experience, and potentially continuous four-year turnover could lead to instability in administrative oversight and accountability. Additionally, Mohlenhoff pointed out that the chief of staff is an at-will position and only has the supervisory authority as delegated by the mayor, which could lead to a lack of clarity in reporting structure. She also said the mayor’s current compensation, which is a $58,000 salary, does not align with the position’s responsibilities. The chief of staff salary is more than twice that at $120,000.
The subcommittee’s specific recommendations are to hire a city manager who would become the chief executive and report to the full Common Council. The council would hire or fire the city manager. The city manager’s responsibilities would include preparing the budget, while the mayor position would become a voting member of council, chair the council and set the agenda, and remain the chief elected official. Currently, the mayor only votes during council to break a tie.
“We have not yet drilled down specifically the defined responsibilities,” Mohlenhoff said. “We have to take a look at what responsibilities would be retained by the mayor and which would transfer over to the city manager. Things more appropriate for a chief executive officer would move over to the city manager.”
She added that they would still need to figure out the appropriate level of staffing to support the new structure as well.
While the report and recommendations were based solely on the general structure of city government and not specifically about who is in which role right now, current mayor Svante Myrick said he supports the change.
“I think there’s a reason most cities our size have city manager roles,” he said. “I think this is a smart approach, and I’d support it. Certainly the challenges laid out, when you put it all on one slide, the staff and departments I have to supervise, I break out in sweats. It’s not working as well as it should.”
A repeated concern among committee members was the timing of the change. The timeline presented by Mohlenhoff would see public input sessions in May and June, and then voting on it on the November ballot.
“I’m just wondering if it makes sense to be undertaking this big of a change at the same time we’re reimagining public safety,” committee member George McGonigal said. “That’s two really big things.”
Earlier in the meeting, the committee had approved sending a request for $124,430 to establish a Community Justice Center for final approval to Common Council.
Mohlenhoff agreed with McGonigal’s point, and said that timing should be part of the conversation going forward, especially if implementation would interrupt the current mayoral term.
For his part, Myrick said that there was no use waiting for a perfect time to make such a big change.
“There’s certainly never a good time to do this,” he said. “But it’s like when the pilot says to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help other people, and as a government I don’t think we’ve done that enough. There will never be a great time, but it’s as good a time as any.”
Committee member Ducson Nguyen said that he generally likes the idea, but asked what the specific role of the mayor would be.
Myrick said that he could see the mayor continuing to take on the legislative and public official duties.
“I chair the IURA, Board of Public Works, neighborhood associations, TCAD,” he said. “There are more meetings than you even want to know about. And there will still be a need for that […] I think there’s also a chief public official for the city for ribbon cuttings, speeches at rotaries, things like that.”
Mohlenhoff agreed, and said that it would be too jarring for the public to just eliminate the mayor position altogether.
“For now, we felt like there wasn’t much data and rationale behind getting rid of the mayor’s position,” she said. “We’re thinking external responsibilities will fall to the mayor and internal responsibilities could end up on the city manager side.”
Alderperson Donna Fleming agreed, and said that it would also continue to give people a voice to have a publicly elected mayor working alongside the Common Council–appointed city manager.
Cogan added that one of the advantages to having a city manager is that the position would have even more accountability.
“They talk about how a mayor is accountable once every four years, but a city manager is accountable every single month because they work for Common Council,” he said. “It makes Common Council more powerful and makes them able to hold their chief executive officer accountable for getting things done.”
Overall, committee members were supportive. More specific language is expected at May’s City Administration Committee meeting, but the subcommittee wanted to make sure they were headed in the right direction. Mohlenhoff added that the first public feedback session could be expected in the latter half of May.