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Propositions would alter balance of power in Ithaca

This article by Raymond M. Schlather and William W. Goldsmith also appeared on the “Viewpoints” page of the Ithaca Journal.

BALLOT PROPOSITIONS (CITY)

Three propositions appear on the Ithaca City ballot this fall.  The first is a matter of housekeeping and should be supported.  The second and third propositions, perhaps unintentionally, call for sweeping changes to the City Charter. They are vaguely stated.   They were developed with no public input and with barely any public debate.  Both should be voted “no.”

PROPOSITION ONE.Vote “Yes”

This proposition preserves staggered terms of council persons with one of two Ward representatives elected every two years.  Every ten years, Ward boundaries must be adjusted according to the census.  To preserve the staggered feature, one representative is assigned a two-year term; the other a four-year term.

PROPOSITIONS TWO AND THREE.  Vote “No”

These propositions change fundamental governing power in the City.  They move the City from a broad citizen-based governing structure to a narrow strong-Mayor governing structure.  They should be voted “No.”

Recently, City officials have stated publicly that these propositions were not intended to change the governing power in the City.  However, a close inspection of the actual Charter changes covered by the propositions undercuts those public statements.  For example, an entire section of the current Charter that prescribes the duties of the Superintendent of Public Works and the oversight “jurisdiction of the Board of Public Works” (BPW) is deleted.  In its place is a new proposed section that puts the Superintendent (and the Department of Public Works) under “the power[s] and supervision of the Mayor” and “subject to the general legislative powers of the Common Council.”  This new section also contradicts another section of the current Charter that lists the duties of the BPW.  Under the law, the new Charter section trumps the earlier section if the two are in conflict.

Similar changes, and the similar Charter contradictions that follow, are proposed for the Fire Chief and the Board of Fire Commissioners, and to a lesser extent, for the Planning Board and for the GIAC Board of Directors.  Thus, notwithstanding the current public statements coming out of City Hall, an unintended consequence of these propositions is the elimination of the oversight responsibilities of these key citizen-based Boards.

Unfortunately, the ballot language used to describe these changes does not even mention this apparently unintended but fundamental power shift.  Rather, the ballot language uses attractive, but vague, terms such as “to clarify and simplify” and “to create a streamlined description” of various roles and duties.  Perhaps because these Charter changes were formulated internally at City Hall and not publicly debated, the full scope of the proposed changes and their broader impact on city governance were not fully explored.  Even now, the community – including some Common Council members – is not aware of the scope and impact of these proposed changes.

Historically, and going back more than one hundred years for public works and fire, volunteer citizen boards have overseen the management of the day-to-day operations of the Department of Public Works, the Fire Department and — to a lesser extent — City Planning and GIAC.

The current Charter expressly requires that the appointed members of the BPW represent a broad spectrum of political views so as to remove politics from the nuts and bolts of ensuring that our toilets flush, our water is clean, our streets are paved and plowed and our physical infrastructure is sound.  The current Charter prescribes the “jurisdiction” of this citizen board and its oversight of the Superintendent of Public Works.  Similarly, the current Charter vests in the Board of Fire Commissioners — those who know fire-fighting best — the responsibilities of overseeing the Fire Chief and fire department operations.  The current Charter provides for more limited involvement of the citizen Planning Board in the appointment of the Director of Planning and oversight of the Planning Department, and for a similar role for GIAC’s citizen Board of Directors.

To be sure, the current Charter directs that Common Council control the purse strings and make the major policy decisions in each of these city operations, including the authority to overrule board decisions.  But, the role of these citizen-based boards — populated by volunteers with a broad range of relevant expertise and interest — has been that of competent oversight of day-to-day operations with real authority.  Indeed, the magic of Ithaca as a community-based democracy, is its plethora of citizen volunteers who regularly and consistently step forward to help make a difference in maintaining and improving the quality of life in this community.  The current system works because it strikes a healthy balance between delegating real governing authority to its citizens and yet preserving electoral accountability.

Propositions Two and Three change all of that.  The citizen boards are stripped of all real authority and oversight responsibility.  The governing trust previously extended to these volunteer citizen boards is revoked.  The boards become “advisory” only.  All power is aggregated in the Mayor.  Indeed, even the role of Common Council is reduced to “general legislative powers” only.

In pure and simple terms, Propositions Two and Three are – whether intended or not — a power grab by the executive branch at the expense of the people.

This is a problem that can be fixed before these changes are made to the Charter.  Given the recent public statements issuing from City Hall, the inclination to fix it appears to be there.  Accordingly, Propositions Two and Three in their present forms must be defeated and sent back to the drawing board for public discussion and resolution.  In the meantime, vote “No.”

Raymond M. Schlather
William W. Goldsmith

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