Mayor or manager? Pros and cons of pols versus pros

kt logoProfessional administrators from two Hudson Valley communities came to Kingston this week to discuss the benefits and perils of city manager form of government.

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.

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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.”

Gallo’s surrogates

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.

There are 9 comments

  1. tarbaby

    I am ever reminded about Texas and her improvements: all she wants for is some water and good people. And the wag, seeing the opening, suggests that such improvement might similarly elevate hell itself.
    It takes a wag to say it, but it can be seen by anyone.

  2. Funky George Clinton

    “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.”

    That only seems like a strength now when so many people (including those pushing the city manager form) are displeased with the mayor and wish they could recall him.

    The Yonkers example shows what can and does happen with this type of position. Having a set term in office has a purpose, and a longer term insulates the officeholder from volatile changes in the electorate. (See the Federalist Papers.)

    This reminds me of the senate filibuster debate. For the Democratic majority, it’s an undemocratic vestige of some forgotten time whose purpose we only vaguely understand. When that party is in the minority, thank God for the filibuster, vital to the cooling saucer function of the senate and prevents tyranny of the majority.

    To me, going with city manager represents giving up on self-government. Hiring the manager will be like hiring the school superintendent- sure you can hire an internal candidate, but everyone will look at you funny, knowing in their hearts that surely the best qualified candidate wouldn’t have stuck around Kingston. Unless the city manager is in soon-to-be retired mode (which is anywhere near 60 for this class of public servant), he’ll try to pad his resume with some big victory. It will be expensive, or else pennywise/pound-foolish. Who cares? He doesn’t have to stick around for the consequences. After 3-5 years he’ll get a fat offer from some school in North Jersey.

    Like the school superintendent, the city manager will speak entirely in jargon and acronyms. This, along with his advanced degree, will discourage most from trying to have a real conversation with him about Kingston’s problems. If they do, he’ll calmly inform them that the answer to the question hinges on some sort of relevant county, state or federal regulation that may or may not come into play. We’re waiting on a response, but you know how Albany is! Good luck with that! (Plus I’m not a lawyer.)

    That said, if things continue has they have been, it probably should happen. If qualified people don’t want to get involved in politics because it’s distasteful/takes too much time/embarrassing/doesn’t pay enough, then we do need to transition away from democracy.

  3. Voice of Sanity

    A city manager will only add another layer to the inept bureaucracy and further bursen the taxpayers with an additional salary to pay. Certainly the position of mayor will not go away, and we will have two bureaucrats fighting for power while ignoring the problems at hand. We have this now with out government and schools.

    Throwing money at the problem will not render a solution, it will only exacerbate the problems at hand

  4. watchbird

    It was billed as non partisan, but of course it wasn’t… the very nature of the meeting was based on problems perceived by KingstonCitizens.org. Note that the .org is just part of a URL and anyone can be a .org instead of say, a .com.

    1) LIttle has been said about the nature of the Common Council… one might suggest there is some serious reporting to do there but it’s harder to actually pin problems down… a large committee provides a defense mechanism from attack much like a school of fish does, confusing the predator…
    2) Little has been said about how council members have taken some serious shots at the executive from a very political standpoint: opposition has not been principled.
    3) There is a huge amount that could be written about the productivity of the mayors office the the mayors appointments

  5. nopolitics

    It’s a silly idea for this time and this place, Rebecca. The reasons are:1)Kingston’s already so far down the tubes economically in its post-IBM era that you’re never going to bring it so much as halfway back before you bankrupt the city already. 2)The current Mayor is doing his best to manage this city responsibly. 3)The current Mayor’s brother put in the strong mayor concept so that the Mayor didn’t have to deal with all the influences of the council and other folks who by nature only had parochial interests in mind instead of the good of the entire city in mind, and that concept holds generally;however, is a city manager going to do much of anything more than Mr. Hein has done at the county level, which is put in positions with fairly hefty salaries, including his own, while at the same time not providing any improvement in service on a day to day basis? If anyone believes THAT you also do not know how politics works in Kingston and you do believe in the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny too. That’s what it comes down to. Right now the Mayor is full-time. It is a full-time Mayor after a long era where the Mayor was a part-time position in Kingston. That’s good enough, so let him do his job and all this discussion over the merits of this and that tinkering are wastes compared to getting to the tasks that face all Kingstonians. Someone once came up with the phrase “good ol’ boy’s network”. We now have two women on the city council and maybe it’s time to elect more women to the city council. Then what we will have, Ms. Rebecca, by definition will be a good ol’ girl’s network(or something approaching this). Let’s give that experiment a try before we tinker with the good ol’ boy’s network to no effect upon the good ol’ boy’s network then,or wouldn’t that good enough for you, Ms. Rebecca?

  6. R. Martin

    The next educational forum will be on Kingston’s Common Council to explore the process of becoming elected, training (on the job or otherwise), communications inside and out of City Hall, legislation and more. Hopefully in May.

    To follow, Kingston’s charter and code.

    Find out more at www.kingstoncitizens.org

    Enjoy the day, anonymous friends. Perhaps a little warm weather will help soften your sharp edges.

  7. VOICE OF SANITY

    Aaaah, there’s the condescending and strongly opinionated person I have grown to love and cherish!

    Amazing how the “either you’re with us or against us” mentality exists on both sides of the political spectrum. We need less dictators and autocrats and more thinkers and people who can see beyond their own egos.

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