ITHACA, NY -- Common Council members got what they’ve been asking for when they were presented with a chart outlining the current powers of the mayor and who would have each power under council-manager government. Current mayor Svante Myrick asked a committee to look into overhauling the current government structure at the beginning of this year, which led to a committee within the City Administration committee recommending a shift to the council-manager style government; the city is currently a mayor-council government.
Throughout discussions, council members made it obvious that the mayoral position was not compensated for the amount of work that person is responsible for. The charter currently lists the mayor’s primary duties as: lead the development of policy, appoint boards and committees, preside over Common Council meetings, serve as chief executive officer of the city, supervise department heads, negotiate with labor unions, develop and present annual budget, chair the capital budget committee, represent the city to other levels of government, make an annual “State of the City” address and serve as ceremonial leader of the city by attending ribbon cuttings, addressing the public in times of crisis and representing the city in celebrations. The salary for the mayor’s position is currently $58,000.
“It’s too much work for one person, which is why the chief of staff position was created a few years ago,” Alderperson Donna Fleming said.
However, the chief of staff positions has issues of its own, namely that the chief of staff is hired by and reports to the mayor, which means any authority that the chief of staff has is delegated by the mayor, which committee members said creates confusion about who has true authority to make decisions.
So to relieve future mayors of some duties, the committee is advocating switching to a city manager who is hired by Common Council. The manager would be politically neutral and would be responsible for ensuring that the policies created by Common Council and the mayor are implemented. A benefit to this, according to the committee, is that there will be consistency in the city’s operations independent of the election cycle; the city manager can remain the same even if there’s a new mayor every four years.
There has been some concern about change weakening the power of voters, however the committee argues that it will actually strengthen the power of voters because Common Council will have direct oversight over (and the power to dismiss) the city manager, whereas a mayor is only held accountable every four years.
It’s not entirely clear at this point what the additional cost would be to the taxpayers, or if there would be one at all. According to the committee, the mayor, the mayor’s executive assistant and the chief of staff cost the city approximately $213,000 in the city budget. The future city manager would earn a bit more than the current chief of staff salary (last reported at $120,000), and the mayor would likely earn slightly less than now. The city manager would have a full-time executive assistant, and the committee reasons that the combination of those changes would result in a cost much the same.
However, the committee also notes that there will be a designated deputy to serve as city manager during vacations, incapacitation, or in the event of the manager’s termination or resignation. A FAQ sheet by the committee reads: “For an organization the size of the City of Ithaca, it is reasonable to have a deputy city manager, appointed by the city manager with the approval of Common Council, to assist in managing the city.” Presumably, the addition of a deputy manager would be an additional cost.
One question that still hasn’t been answered directly, and may not be, is whether the mayor will be part-time or full-time. The following is the proposed breakdown of responsibilities for the mayor and city manager:
POWERS OF THE MAYOR
UNDER COUNCIL-MANAGER GOVERNMENT
Serve as chief executive officer of the city
Appoint, evaluate, terminate dept. heads
Appoint city attorney
City manager (with Council approval)
Serve as presiding officer of Common Council
Serve as presiding officer of Board of Public Works
Mayor (discussion below)
Appoint members of boards and commissions and ad hoc or advisory committees
Monitor the effectiveness and performance of city departments
Make recommendations to Common Council about changes in departments to decrease costs or improve service when Council’s authorization is required
Prepare an annual budget and when adopted monitor compliance with its provisions
Submit procurement policies to Common Council for approval; implement and monitor those policies
Negotiate labor contracts and make recommendations to Common Council regarding personnel matters
Developer and administer salary plan for city employees, periodically recommend amendments to Council to eliminate inequities, recruiting difficulties or turnover
Determine what officer or employee shall exercise powers or perform duties not otherwise assigned by charter, local law or ordinances of Common Council
Represent the city to agencies of the federal, state and county governments and regional authorities for the purpose of obtaining funds or services beneficial to the city
Mayor and/or city manager
Represent the city or arrange representation in dealing with private agencies, educational institutions and other bodies which provide funds, services or advice to the city
Mayor and/or city manager
Initiate and direct such activities as well improve the economy of the city and its tax base and cooperate with groups outside the city government having the same purposes
Mayor and/or city manager
Serve as chairperson of the interdepartmental Capital Program Committee
Address the Common Council annually at its first regular meeting in January and at such other times as they deem appropriate with respect to the needs and resources of the city
Execute on behalf of the city, when authorized by Common Council, all deeds, contracts and other documents to be executed as acts of the city except as otherwise provided by law
Declare the existence of an emergency
When authorized by the Common Council of Board of Public Works, execute all deeds, contracts and other papers as the acts of the city, except as otherwise provided by local finance law
Administer oaths and take affidavits and acknowledgements
Appoint members of the IURA and be a member of the IURA
With the day-to-day responsibilities of the mayor greatly diminished, there’s still some murkiness over the amount of working hours that are expected from whoever is in that position. Alderperson Cynthia Brock reiterated her concern from past meetings that making the mayoral position part-time might not be realistic.
She said that Council positions are theoretically 20-hour per week positions too, and they’re expected to be part of various boards, committees and working groups. Brock said with those commitments in addition to things like ribbon cuttings, dinners, annual meetings and other responsibilities of the mayor could push working hours over 20.
“I fully understand we imagine these part-time positions to be part-time, but the expectation we put on Council members to be involved and active in all these groups, and the requirement on mayors to be at all these other things, is it realistic to expect someone to be able to do that in 20 hours?”
Brock’s other concern is that the perhaps unpredictable schedule of a part-time mayor position would make it difficult for the mayor to obtain another 20-hour a week job or a full-time job and still be able to meet the demands of the position.
“If the intent is that the mayor is a part-time position and Council is part0time then we should have a realignment of expectations,” Brock said. “The consensus seems to be to keep the mayor part-time, so I would just ask during this process if we can dial back that expectation and make sure that part-time position is 20 hours a week.”
Another problem with a part-time mayor position is that it could prove to be exclusionary, particularly if an unpredictable schedule might require attendance of ribbon cuttings and public ceremonies during the day and meetings in the evenings. This could lead to only people with the means, whether that be because they’re retired or they’re wealthy, running for mayor.
City Attorney Ari Lavine noted that the proposed legislation does not lock whether the mayor is part-time or full-time one way or another. He said it’s left to be addressed through other elements, such as expectations and compensation.
Deb Mohlenhoff, who has been leading the charge of the committee, said they’re leaving it open-ended intentionally.
“I don’t think we’re looking for a definitive statement of hours or full-time or part-time,” she said. “We’re trying to professionalize some of the tasks that are currently on the mayor’s plate. People have vastly different capacities of what they can do in these roles. Being a public official makes you available to peoples’ needs, but I don’t know how you quantify that. We’re counting the mayor on the side of someone who is elected and does what’s needed and not codifying it.”
Alderperson Seph Murtagh agreed and said that how much time is committed to the position will be up to whoever holds it.
“I think even if we were to establish the position as part-time you’re still going to have people who are willing to devote full-time to it — retired people or people who have the means,” he said. “And I think that’s a really tough thing to govern because of that. It’s up to the individual and how much they’re willing to devote to this […] I think it’s really important to establish a norm that these are positions someone can do while balancing other responsibilities. I think that’s more inclusive and we’ll find more people willing to run for those positions.”
Council member George McGonigal agreed with Murtagh and Mohlenhoff, and said he thinks it’s better to leave it open.
“To be the representative of the city will take more than 20 hours a week,” he said. “And some weeks will take more than others. I think we should leave that open and try not to limit it to 20 hours a week. That’s not very much at all.”
Another area that needs to be finalized is who will chair the Board of Public Works. Currently, that role belongs to the mayor who has voting powers, and then there is a Council liaison on the board who is not a voting member. Brock asked Myrick if he had an opinion, because she felt that it was still important that an elected official has a voting roll on the board.
“In its current iteration I think it’s very important for the mayor to chair and vote,” Myrick said. “I can imagine different iterations of the board where it would be less important that the mayor chair, but as it’s currently structured I think it’s important for an elected official to be voting because it’s about one-third of the budget.”
There was a brief discussion from Council members about if they wanted to change the makeup of the Board of Public Works, but Lavine said that would be a topic separate to the one at hand about who would chair the board. Council members agreed to leave the mayor as the chair and voting member of the Board of Public Works, and consider different legislation regarding the board another time.
In a similar vein, the Council also confirmed that the new government structure would see the mayor become a voting member of Common Council. Currently, the mayor only votes if a tie needs to be broken.
The next step for this process is having City Administration vote on final legislation before moving it to the full Common Council, who then must also approve it. When that happens, it will be placed on the November 2022 ballot for residents to vote on. A public information campaign will begin to address the public’s questions and concerns once it’s placed on the ballot. While there’s not necessarily a time crunch to get this done as there’s a full year before the 2022 election, some members of Council who are not re-running for their seats next month are hoping to get it approved by the end of the year when their terms are up.