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Silent Campaign, Silent Victory

Albany’s charter revisions pass after little public debate

 

After flying under the campaign radar, Albany’s four charter revision proposals were approved without fanfare by city voters during last week’s election.

The propositions were drafted by a charter-review commission established by Mayor Jerry Jennings and generated little public debate, unlike a separate citizen-led reform effort by the Albany Civic Agenda that took place during 2005. Although the citizen-proposed revisions never made it to the ballot, many Albany residents were aware of that effort—even if they were unfamiliar with the specific proposals—because of the controversy it provoked.

This election cycle, charter-reform debate was virtually nonexistent.

“I think a lot of people went into the polls on Tuesday not really knowing or expecting to see the propositions there and not really having a big familiarity with them prior to going in,” said Richard Conti, Ward 6 Albany councilman and a member of the charter-review commission.

Judge Larry Rosen, chairman of the charter-review committee, expressed a different sentiment. He said the public was adequately educated about the revisions.

Although the commission did not send a citywide mailing because of the cost, Rosen said there were plenty of ways for voters to access information about the propositions. In addition to operating a Web site—albanycity charter.org—the commission sent fliers detailing the propositions to the city’s libraries, distributed information to each of the neighborhood associations, and offered to speak at neighborhood association meetings. Three associations requested this service, Rosen said.

“Anyone who was interested was [informed],” Rosen said. “I think if you look at the vote for Propositions 1, 3 and 4, and the vote for Proposition number 2, you’ll see that [almost 2,000] people who voted for all the three propositions voted against 2, which leads me to believe that people who cared enough about the issue were able to distinguish between the propositions. Otherwise, how would you explain that?”

In 2005, Rosen publicly opposed the ACA-proposed reforms. When the Common Council considered whether to put the ACA’s revisions up for election even after signatures on the group’s petitions were declared invalid, Rosen spoke up during the public-comment period of the meeting. “We need more time to educate the public,” he argued, shortly before the council voted to deny ballot access [“No More Power to You,” Newsfront, Sept. 15, 2005].

One year later, Conti wasn’t confident that residents were aware of the commission’s propositions prior to entering the voting booth.

“I think in terms of the public discussion of this topic, it really fell flat,” Conti said. As explanations, he noted the lack of any organized opposition and the failure of the media to cover the issue widely during campaign season.

Although members of ACA did not organize to oppose the commission-produced revisions, some individuals chose to vote against the propositions to protest the way they felt the city steamrolled the citizen-led proposals.

“I voted against passage of each of the propositions,” said Paul Bray, a member of ACA, “not so much on the individual merits or lack of merits, but what they represented as a process.”

“The charter revisions that came out were definitely an improvement,” said Jim Tierney, also an ACA member, who voted in favor of the revisions. “I respect wholeheartedly the people who have continuing concerns about whether this was enough, but at the same time I do have to congratulate Larry Rosen for marshalling improvements to the city charter through the commission. While there are certainly other things that anybody would want to see happen, I think that this is an improvement, and you have to take improvements whenever you can.”

The first two ballot propositions responded to the same issues identified as problematic by the citizen-led proposals.

Proposition 1 will bolster the check-and-balance power of the Common Council by requiring that mayoral appointments of nonelected city department heads be subject to the advice and consent of the council. The revision affects existing positions, including heads of the departments of water, general services and the police, to name a few.

The ACA measure also suggested mayoral appointments be subject to the advice and consent of the council, but included additional positions and also required officers be reconfirmed at the beginning of each mayoral term rather than only at the time of the appointment.

Proposition 2 was the most contentious of the four reforms. It changes the composition of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which authorizes expenditures of city tax dollars and transfers money in the budget. Under the current charter, the board is composed of the mayor, comptroller, council president and two city employees appointed by the mayor.

Critics of this composition argue that allowing the mayor to appoint two members undermines the board’s independence in financial decision making.

Proposition 2 addresses this issue by replacing the two employees with the city treasurer, who’s an elected official, and the corporation counsel, who’s appointed by the mayor but now will be subject to the advice and consent of the council. The ACA proposal attempted to solve the same problem but by different means: replacing the two mayor-appointed employees with two council members as appointed by the Common Council.

“The civic agenda proposal was probably marginally better in that it at least provided a level of council representation, but in both cases it didn’t go to the real issue,” Conti said.

He said the real problem with the current construction of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment is that the board has the ability to revise the budget after it is adopted by the Common Council without conferring with the city’s policymakers.

“Adjustments to the budget that are policy-related really need to come back to the council for approval and consideration because it’s the council, in the beginning, that adopted the budget,” Conti said. “I think the issue’s not going away. I think the next step is that we need to discuss the policy issue. Hopefully we’ll be able to put something on the table soon that will generate public discussion on what’s appropriate.”

Proposition 3 requires the mayor, comptroller and treasurer to designate a deputy who would perform their duties during an absence or inability to perform. Proposition 4 requires the Common Council to establish and periodically review a policy for determining appropriate levels of city debt.

—Nicole Klaas

nklaas@metroland.net


What a Week

Fairly Unbalanced

The Hufftington Post claims to have an internal memo from Fox News authored by the network’s vice president of news. The memo consoles newspeople that Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation is not “the end of the world.” The memo continues: “The War on Terror continues without interruption. . . . Let’s be on the lookout for any statements from the Iraqi insurgents, who must be thrilled at the prospect of a Dem-controlled Congress.”

Lieberpublican?

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I/D-Conn.) used his “Joementum” to rally back from a defeat in the Democratic primary to reclaim his Senate seat last week. This week, Lieberman reminded folks that although he will caucus with the Democrats because they have allowed him to retain his seniority, he is a Lieberpendent and wants to be known as an Independent Democrat. However, he told The Boston Globe that he would not rule out a switch to the Republican Party if they offered him a committee chairmanship, and that he was being made to feel “uncomfortable” by Democrats. “They played by the traditional partisan political playbook. And I can’t say I enjoyed it, but we’re all grown-ups,” said Lieberman of his fellow Senate Democrats.

Short-Term Memory Lapse

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was elected as Senate Minority Leader on Wednesday. Four years ago, Lott lost his job as majority leader after he asserted that the United States would have avoided “all these problems” if Strom Thurmond had been elected President in 1948. Thurmond supported segregation during his presidential run.

Wait Station

Memo to Crossgates Mall store managers: Don’t shoo away the chubby guys holding the chug-a-lug containers of Mountain Dew who have been sleeping outside your store for a couple of nights now. All they want is the new PlayStation 3—the newest addition to the next-generation videogame wars. Sure, the console will cost $600 or so, with games retailing at about $60 a shot, but these guys need their fix. You might want to make friends with them ASAP because Nintendo’s new console the, Wii, is due out anytime now.



Budgeting Against Progress

To some, cutting Schenectady’s affirmative-action office means the city is taking a step backward

 

Schenectady Councilman Joseph Allen was the only council member absent from the Oct. 27 vote to approve Mayor Brian Stratton’s 2007 budget. He was also the only council member who would have voted against the $68.7 million spending plan.

Allen said he would not have voted in favor of the proposed budget for two reasons: because he disagreed with the decision to transfer the city’s affirmative action office to the county government, and because the plan axed funding for a director of parks and recreation.

“I wasn’t there at the time [of the vote], but I sent a letter to Mark Blanchfield, who’s president of the council,” Allen said. “I couldn’t vote for it because of these particular reasons.”

The approved 2007 budget cut funding for the city’s park and recreation director, a position that was held by Bill Sever until he retired this summer. Since his departure, his duties have been distributed among several other city employees, Allen said.

“You have all these people pinch- hitting, and they don’t have the expertise,” he said. “It’s not the same. You need a park and recreation director.”

While Allen would like to see the position restored, he was more passionate about the decision to merge the city’s affirmative-action office with the county’s department.

“There has been a drastic change in the number of minorities moving into the city and the county of Schenectady during the last 15, 20 years,” Allen said. “There has been a tremendous increase in minorities, and yet the demographics of people employed by the county and the city haven’t showed that.”

Until recently, Schenectady em ployed one individual to serve as the city’s affirmative-action director, whose job description included ensuring that the city was in compliance with requirements relating to the Americans with Disabilities Act, affirmative action, and equal-opportunity employment. The position was funded by a $50,000 block grant from the federal government, said Allen, who has been critical of the city’s affirmative action efforts throughout his 10-year tenure as councilman.

“We’ve had a number of [affirmative-action directors], and they haven’t gotten very much support from the administration in Schenectady over the years,” Allen said. “They never have. There was very little secretarial support, very little support from the administration—meaning the executive director or the mayor—and very little support from the city council.”

Stratton did not return calls for comment.

Under the new plan, the city will merge its affirmative-action office with the county’s department in what Schenectady County Manager Kathleen Rooney called an “intergovernmental project.”

Schenectady County’s affirmative-action department currently is supported by county funds and employs one part-time affirmative-action officer. The county is in the process of hiring a full-time affirmative action manager, who will work with the affirmative action officer to manage the program for both the city and county. As part of the contractual relationship between the city and county, the city of Schenectady will provide the county with funds to support the department.

“With this new budget, they’ve wiped out [the affirmative action] position and sent it over to the county, and the county’s record is more abysmal than ours,” Allen said. “I don’t know where they got the idea that the county was going to do any better unless they were just saying, ‘We don’t want to deal with it so we’ll let the county deal with it.’ And the county, for some reason, has agreed to take on this challenge, and I don’t know if they have a clue what this position entails.”

Unlike the city’s affirmative-action office, the county’s department is young, having operated since only about 2005, according to Rooney.

Allen questioned whether this young program would be capable of properly supporting the goals of affirmative action and equal opportunity, especially since the county’s minority employment numbers already are below that of the city of Schenectady.

“I’m just surprised that the federal government hasn’t hammered the city and county of Schenectady because of their lack of affirmative action and equal opportunity,” he said. “It makes me wonder how they can get away with it.”

—Nicole Klaas

nklaas@metroland.net




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