Chartering a new course

On Nov. 6, Montgomery County residents will vote on whether county government should be changed. Regardless of the vote outcome, the issue won't go away for the city of Amsterdam.

That's because Mayor Ann Thane is drawing up a list of people to sit on what she promises will be a bipartisan committee. Its mission? Changing the city charter.

Unlike the county, which is trying to put together a charter for the first time ever, the city already has a document that has undergone scores of tweaks and updates over the years. Still, it's never a bad thing when local government takes a close look at how it's running and comes up with ways to better run a municipality.

Amsterdam's effort is still in its infancy, but it appears that changing the charter could be one of the dominant city issues in 2013. Because this is Amsterdam, it's likely that changing the charter will become heavily politicized because everything in the city is political, but it doesn't have to be that way. The same issue at the county level has also undergone its share of political gamesmanship, but the commission (a bipartisan and diverse panel) that proposed the changes on the Nov. 6 ballot were able to do so without a lot of back-room maneuvering and public grandstanding.

Hopefully, the city commission will be able to do the same thing. It will help if the panel includes people from across the city. In particular, it would be nice to have a voice from the city's Hispanic community, a population group that continues to be disengaged and underrepresented when it comes to local government.

While the committee will likely consider several changes -- some of which have already been discussed privately and publicly -- there are a few places where adjustments could be made.

* Change the controller's post from an elected position to an appointed one: Right now, the only qualifications one needs to be Amsterdam's chief financial officer is to be 18 and a city resident. Talk about a recipe for disaster. The controller's job is one that needs someone with a specialized skill set and the ability to handle the complexities of a $27 million municipal budget. By making this change, the city can establish minimum education and experience requirements along with a specific job description. There would be an increased level of accountability because that person would be answerable to the mayor and the Common Council. Right now, the controller is only answerable to the voters every four years, meaning if a person holding the job isn't up to the task, the city is stuck until the next election. Making the position an appointed one -- like other department heads -- gives the mayor and council the ability to make a change if the person in that post is performing poorly.

The controller's position is too important to be bound by the political process. Lawmakers rely on information from the finance department so they can make informed decisions -- information that has been hard to come by lately because of various issues. The mayor and the council need someone in that job who can provide regular financial updates and meet deadlines when filing required reports, and lawmakers need to be in a position where they can make that happen. The mayor and council have no recourse now when that doesn't happen because the controller doesn't answer to them. It creates unnecessary headaches and is an inefficient way to run a municipality.

* Get rid of the budget review committee: The past several city budget processes have been disasters, and much of it has to do with the ridiculous way spending plans are put together. Right now, the city gathers requests and revenue projections from department heads. The committee -- composed of the mayor, controller and Common Council -- goes through all of them to try and come up with a balanced budget. Judging by recent history, the process simply doesn't work, and it eliminates the separation of powers and checks and balances needed to properly run Amsterdam's government.

The budget process should be simple. The mayor, as chief executive, should submit a balanced budget to the Common Council for review. The mayor, as the day-to-day overseer of government operations, should have the ability to make any adjustments necessary to department head requests, propose tax/fee increases and decreases, and work with the controller to come up with revenue projections. The council, as the legislative body, should have the power to go through the mayor's proposal and make any changes they deem necessary before sending it back to the mayor for final approval or disapproval. It's a system that works at nearly every other level of government, but as usual, Amsterdam feels the need to do it differently than everyone else.

A main problem with the current process in the city is there's no accountability. It gives the mayor a pass on taking responsibility for spending levels and allows them to avoid proposing tax and fee increases. The controller should only be there to provide financial information and has no business voting on a budget. The process also allows the council to give up some powers when it comes to controlling spending and enacting budget policies, which is a legislative task, not an executive one. This is one of those times when "the way things used to be" is actually the better way of doing things, and the city should go back to it.

* Ditch the Citizen's Review Board: The concept of having a board in charge of dealing with government misbehavior is a good one, but does the city really need a panel like this? For starters, Montgomery County already has an ethics board to deal with ethical problems that may come up from time to time, so why does the city need a board of its own? It's not like there's a monstrous backlog of cases on the city level, nor is the county board overburdened with complaints. The county ethics board should suffice.

A main problem with the Citizen's Review Board is the three members of the panel are elected in citywide races. That means anyone who wants to be a member has to go through the process -- and expense -- of collecting more petition signatures than a candidate for the Common Council does. The city can barely field candidates as it is when board positions open up. It seems like a lot of work, and duplication, for a board that rarely, if ever, meets and has limited powers anyway. It's unnecessary.

* Eliminate the wards: Back in the day, wards were needed because neighborhoods sprung up around factories. Each of those neighborhoods had its own churches, bars, restaurants and schools because transportation was somewhat limited. People had to work, live and play in specific areas, which required the need for individual representation in city government. The landscape of Amsterdam is different now. While the city still has many diverse neighborhoods (to Amsterdam's credit, by the way), people are not as confined to their immediate areas as they used to be. All the grocery stores and other types of commercial businesses are up on Route 30 in the town of Amsterdam. There aren't many factories left in the city, and the number of churches, schools, bars and restaurants has decreased. The need for that kind of individual representation no longer exists.

The current ward system is also unfortunate because we've seen several election contests where one ward will have two fantastic people running for one seat while another ward will feature candidates who aren't nearly as good. The 3rd Ward race last year between Alderwoman Gina DeRossi and Thom Georgia is a perfect example. Both candidates would have been excellent assets to city government, and in this race, the 3rd Ward would have won no matter who emerged as the victor. In the same vein, the city winds up losing in circumstances like this because someone (in this case, DeRossi) has to win while the other person goes home. Meanwhile, other wards get stuck with representation of a lesser quality.

The solution would be to eliminate the wards and make the council at-large positions, elected by the entire city. The top five vote-getters each cycle get in. Yes, concerns that the council could get stacked with individuals from one corner of the city are valid, but what's to stop people from all over the city throwing their hat in the ring? Legitimate council candidates should have a platform that appeals to all of Amsterdam, not just their individual neighborhoods.

And, if the new city charter commission wants to get really radical:

* Establish non-partisan voting in all city races: Seriously, does it matter if a person is a Republican or Democrat to hold a city office? Unfortunately, it seems to be that way in Amsterdam, but how necessary is it? It's not like either major political party has official platforms when it comes to picking up garbage, fixing potholes, arresting bad guys, or fighting fires. People elected to city government should get there because they will do what's best when dealing with local issues, and it shouldn't matter if there's an "R" or "D" after their names. The problem is many voters, despite claims to the contrary, do vote for a specific party. Eliminating the party designation means candidates for city office have to run on their own merits. It also could attract better candidates. Other areas of the country have eliminated partisan voting at the local level, and it seems to work quite nicely.

Take North Carolina, for example. I'm using it as an example because that's where I lived before moving back here. In Lenoir County, which is slightly larger than Montgomery County in terms of population, there are three incorporated municipalities: Kinston, which is about the size of Saratoga Springs, La Grange and Pink Hill, two communities each about the size of the village of Broadalbin. Kinston is one of the few places in the Tar Heel State that still has partisan local elections. In 2008, they barely had enough candidates to fill all the vacancies on the city council. That same year, in Pink Hill, where partisan elections have gone the way of the dodo, more than a half-dozen people ran for mayor, giving residents there a real choice. It would be a wild step for Amsterdam to take, given the fact that politics is more a blood sport here than a game, but why not give it some consideration?

Just so this is clear, these issues aren't officially up for discussion yet because a commission hasn't been formed, so no one should think this is the exact path the city plans to take. They're merely suggestions. Obviously, the public will have a better idea of which direction Amsterdam officials want to take when reviewing the charter once the committee is put into place.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. Here's hoping that city residents pay close attention to what happens once this ball starts rolling, because the final decision will be up to them.


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