Photo: From right: Ellen Polimeni, the Mayor of Canandaigua, with Commission membersMatt Jones and Laura Chodos.
Ellen Polimeni, the Mayor of Canandaigua, and Matt Horn, the City Manager of Geneva spoke with the Charter Review Commission Subcommittee on Alternative Forms of Government on November 14, about the challenges facing their respective cities, and the role of the mayor-council-manager form of government.
The meeting was part of a lengthy analysis by the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission to assess how our city functions under its current charter, based on the commission form of government. In a mayor-council-manager form of government, citizens elect a mayor and city council that sets the policy direction for the city and then hires a city manager to handle administrative tasks on a day-to-day basis.
Both officials emphasized that the mayor-council-manager form of government improved the elected officials ability to communicate with citizens. “If the council members have to approve invoices and hear personnel grievances,” said Manager Horn, who joined the meeting by phone, “it makes it hard to get out and hear people and attend neighborhood meetings.” Both Polimeni and Horn said that having a city manager enabled more people to run for office. The average council member worked 6-10 hours a week in their council-manager system, they added.
Both officials felt that the city manager had helped diminish partisan bickering and infighting. Polimeni said that, since she doesn’t have to administer the day-to-day operations of the city, she can “work on promoting consensus in the city council and keep it pointed in the right direction.” Horn said that having a city manager provides administrative continuity since department heads don’t change with each election.
According to Polimeni, having a city manager helped to depoliticize important capital budget decisions so they are made on objective criteria. “Several residents can complain about the paving of Elm Street,” she said. “However, the city manager can say Maple Ave is actually older and in worse condition. Then the City Council can make a more informed and fair decision.”
The Canandaigua city council spends the first two months of the year setting the strategic plan for the year and then has the city manager implement those goals, said the Mayor. Horn agreed with her characterization. “I have a one year contract. I know exactly who I report to. I am a servant of the City Council. I don’t set policy. If I am not moving the needle, I am gone.”
Both officials emphasized that the New York State Property Tax Cap has placed cities under pressure to do more than less. Having a city manager had enhanced cooperation between the cities and saved their taxpayers’ money, they said. Canandaigua and Geneva share Information Technology and Assessment officers and have joined the Finger Lakes Health Consortium to keep employee health costs down. Canandaigua previously had the commission form of government but changed, according to Polimeni, because of the lack of communication and cooperation between the different silos of government.
The Commission welcomes feedback from the public at this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. A webcast of the entire meeting can be viewed at this link: http://saratogaspringsny.swagit.com/play/11152016-553
By Bob Turner, Chair, Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission