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Resurrection of city charter review commission proposed

Saturday, April 05, 2014 - Updated: 4:08 AM


A dispute between the Amsterdam Common Council and Mayor Ann Thane regarding charter language was decided in Supreme Court this week, but the issue may not be over yet.

Fourth Ward Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler has proposed to resurrect the Charter Review Commission to address some of the "ambiguous" areas of the city charter.

"Government is changing," Hatzenbuhler said. "I think that there are parts of the charter that are wishy-washy, and they need to be more clarified. You need some more black and white so you can avoid going to court."

Supreme Court Judge Joseph Sise on Wednesday ruled that the council does not have power to negotiate contracts under the charter.

The ruling relates to a dispute that reared over former golf professional Joseph Merendo's contract; it eventually led to a lawsuit Thane filed against the council after Hatzenbuhler signed the agreement in Thane's stead.

Contractual powers is one of the areas Hatzenbuhler said she will want the commission to look into, though she said re-establishing the commission has been an idea she's had since before the dispute began.

"Absolutely," Hatzenbuhler said. "We don't want this to happen again."

The commission will be a mixture of city residents, both Democrats and Republicans, and will not include any aldermen, Hatzenbuhler said.

"We just want people who are dedicated; who want to see our community improve and succeed," Hatzenbuhler said.

Thane is also in support of revisiting the charter.

"It's been evident for several years that this charter is weakened by vagaries," Thane said. "I have discussed a redraft with staff and we had done some research into best practices in other communities."

She said the group should be "non-partisan, intelligent and populated with people that have expertise in organizational planning/structuring, governance and/or law."

"This should be a collaborative effort," Thane said. "This is not an action that should be taken with retribution, partisanship or power-grabbing in mind. It should be a thoughtful exercise to do what is best for our city."

Hatzenbuhler has spoken with former corporation counsel Robert Going about chairing the commission, should one emerge.

Going, who served under the Joseph Emanuele administration, chaired the 1982 Charter Review Commission, and participated in the most recent commission in 2004.

He said while the idea of a commission is still in its infancy, he thinks one could be helpful, and he would be happy to chair it.

Going has publicly voiced opposition against Thane's and corporation counsel Gerard DeCusatis' interpretation of language in the charter -- the same language that landed them in court this week.

A section of the charter that had been challenged addresses powers and duties of the council. It says the aldermen have the power "to award all public contracts."

The language at one time said "to award all public works contracts." The word "works" was dropped during a charter revision process, and should have referred exclusively to public works contracts, according to DeCusatis.

Going said he and the commission hashed out the meaning of that line for two days. He said that area may be something the commission will look at, but he doesn't "have an agenda or anything."

"I don't think wholesale changes in the existing charter is something that's going to happen," Going said. "I don't think that's particularly wise."

Hatzenbuhler mentioned some other changes she would like to see addressed, like having the recreation director report to the city engineer, instead of the mayor.

"Structural changes," Hatzenbuhler said.

Third Ward Alderman Ronald J. Barone Sr. said it's important to make these changes so they don't "end up in court over every little thing."

He said whatever they do, it has to be quick, so the commission has time to get the changes onto the November general election ballot.

Any charter change requires a referendum to be voted on by the public.

Thane said she doesn't think this is something that should be rushed.

"We've got to live with the document for a long time," Thane said. "I think we have the opportunity to script something from scratch, rather than retreading a flawed document, again looking to best practices elsewhere."

If interested in participating in the commission, Hatzenbuhler said to contact her by e-mailing or calling 842-2490.

The commission will be discussed in committee Tuesday night.


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