The event, sponsored by the group KingstonCitizens.org, featured Beacon City Administrator Meredith Robson and Chuck Strome, New Rochelle’s city manager. Event organizer Rebecca Martin said that she planned the event to educate citizens about a system of government that was actually adopted in Kingston two decades ago, only to be reversed before it went into effect and replaced with the current “strong mayor” structure.
City managers and administrators are professionals, usually accredited by the International City/County Administrators Association and holding advanced degrees in public administration or business. The manager is hired by an elected council led by a part-time mayor whose duties are largely ceremonial. The council passes legislation and makes policy. The manager, meanwhile, is in charge of hiring and firing, day-to-day operation of the city departments and preparing a budget for consideration by the council. The city manager also makes policy recommendations to the council and serves as an advisor to the council on a number of municipal issues.
What the manager doesn’t do — can’t do according to ICMA ethics rules — is engage in politics. Strome said that separating politics from day-to-day city business avoids favoritism — like say when areas represented by the minority party get plowed last after a snowstorm — and creates a stable class of professional city employees who don’t turn over with each new administration.
“Just because somebody worked on somebody’s campaign, somebody might feel like they owe somebody a job,” said Strome. “That doesn’t happen in a council-manager system.”
Buying in to the concept
Strome and Robeson, however, both said that politics can never be entirely divorced from city government. Both offered examples of policy advice — like carrying out a citywide property value reassessment — that had been brushed aside by the council based on political concerns. Strome also pointed to the example of Yonkers, where generations of politicians simply appointed one of their own as city manager, abandoning the idea of professional apolitical administration.
The key to a successful manager council system, they said is a community and elected officials who buy into the concept and support it. Good city administrators, meanwhile, must be prepared to stand up to elected officials if they encroach on the manager’s turf by, for example, lobbying for someone to be hired or fired.
“It’s not a comfortable feeling, but sometimes you have to tell a mayor or a council member that they’re treading on turf where they don’t belong.”
That discomfort stems, in part from the fact that professional administrators serve at the pleasure of those same elected officials. Unlike a “strong mayor,” who only has to answer to voters every few years, professional administrators can be replaced at any time. Robeson said that that kind of job insecurity, when coupled with a healthy respect for the role of a professional administrator, is one of the strengths of the manager-council system.
“We earn our keep every single day because we can be so easily dismissed,” said Robson. “If we’re not doing our job, you can bet there will be a change.”
Despite its billing as a nonpartisan educational forum, present-day city politics were on display at the event. Among the 25 or so attendees were former aldermen Charlie Landi and Tom Hoffay and current Council Majority Leader Matt Dunn core members of what Mayor Shayne Gallo has dubbed a “shadow government” bent on undermining his administration (Ward 5 Alderman Bill Carey, not publicly identified as an anti-Gallo conspirator, was also present). Also in the audience was Gallo’s confidential secretary, Ellen DiFalco, and her husband Kingston Independence Party Chairman and Gallo supporter Joe DiFalco. Both made pointed statements opposing the concept of professionally administered government. Ellen DiFalco said that Kingston would be unable to afford a city manager. City managers, according to the ICMA, make a median salary of about $101,000. Currently, Kingston’s mayor — who would be reduced to a part-timer with a presumably commensurate salary cut — currently makes $75,000 a year. Joe DiFalco questioned whether the system would separate politics from city administration or simply “take power away from voters and give it to the political bosses of the power committees.” Both comments, Martin said, echoed remarks made by Gallo when she met with him last week to discuss the upcoming educational forum.
For more information and transcripts of the event, visit kingstoncitizens.org.