Charter commission needs clear direction or it’ll be a waste of time

I’m willing to give council members the benefit of the doubt when they assert that “retribution” is not the motive behind the recent push for a charter review commission. However, when the only reasons cited so far for the purpose of the commission have to do with the golf course dispute and the desire to avoid going to court again, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than the effort is directly related to it.

My deep concern is that this proposed commission is simply another route to achieve political advantage over the mayor; a goal which I believe the Republican members of the council have been pursuing since the beginning of the year. And I don’t think my concerns are unfounded.

To date, the current council is the only council in our city’s history that has had any trouble correctly understanding the powers of the executive and legislative branches of the government without needing a county judge to clarify it for them. By my observation, the council members have  shown a bias toward accepting advice and encouragement from people who have had public and long-standing grievances with the mayor.

Going back to my recordings from the council meeting on February 4th of this year, I listened to Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler citing advisement from attorney Robert Going that signing city contracts is a “ministerial duty” that anyone on the council can be authorized to perform. She tells Corporation Counsel Gerard DeCusatis that his differing opinion on the matter is wrong because Going served on previous charter commissions that DeCusatis did not serve on. Alderman Ron Barone complains that DeCusatis won’t give him an opinion that agrees with his own because he is the “mayor’s lawyer.”

Quite simply, I think council members are listening to people who tell them what they already want to hear. Historically, this is usually the prime ingredient for leadership failure.

The way I see it, Going’s interpretation of the charter was not completely unsupported. But it was highly imaginative and would have set an entirely new precedent for how contracts were negotiated and approved in Amsterdam; a precedent that would have shifted a significant amount of power from the mayor’s office to the council. The council’s interpretation of the charter, guided by Going’s advice, was proven wrong in court. Now Hatzenbuhler wants Going to head the charter review commission.

It’s not that I don’t think a charter commission could be useful. Mayor Ann Thane said herself at the same meeting that “whoever rewrote this charter did such a poor job because it is so vague.” So there seems to be agreement between both parties that the language in the charter is ambiguous in certain areas.

Ultimately, any recommendations that a charter commission makes has to be approved by a public referendum. I have faith that our voters usually make the right decisions. So here’s the key aspects that I believe need to be addressed in order to win over a majority the voters.

  1. The commission needs to have a diversity of viewpoints in order to be perceived as legitimate. Of the people I’m acquainted with on the list of prospective members, there’s more than a few who are long time and outspoken critics of the mayor. That shouldn’t disqualify any of them. But the commission needs to find favor with all the voters, especially the significant number of swing voters in this city who have put Democrats in power for one term, and Republicans in power the next.
  2. With respect to the aforementioned swing voters, I believe any recommendations put to a referendum that significantly change the balance of power between the legislative and executive branch will mostly likely fail. I think most Amsterdam voters understand it would be foolish to listen to those who want to see the mayor’s power reduced just because Ann Thane happens to occupy the position at the present time. Such an action could easily come back to bite the Republican party if someday there was a Republican mayor and Democratic controlled council. I firmly believe that a balanced system of checks and balances is necessary for good government. Opposing parties should have to compromise in order to move forward. That is a principle on which our nation was founded on.
  3. In order to ensure that the commission doesn’t go off in some radical direction, the council needs to provide some specific guidance as to what passages of the charter the commission should look at, and be clear about how it should resolve the ambiguity. To be more specific, I think that the council should instruct the commission to use existing precedent and the recent court decision to clarify the language of the charter. The commission should not be allowed to re-write sections of the charter based on anyone’s individual ideology.

Looking over the past 100 days of the new common council’s efforts, we can see that the two initiatives which have taken up the most time, attention and discussion – the fight over the authority to sign contacts, as well as the effort to rescind the artificial turf project at Shuttleworth – have not turned out well for the council Republicans. In both cases I believe members listened to people who confirmed their existing viewpoint rather than listening to sound, qualified advice. In light of that, council members shouldn’t rush this issue. They should take as much time as needed to make sure the composition of the commission is right and the direction is clear. Otherwise this effort could end as yet another avoidable failure and a waste of time that could have been better spent on other issues.

Photo copyright iStock/joxxxxjo

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About Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.

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