Charter Commission moves up timetable, discusses term limits

At Monday’s meeting of the Charter Review Commission, Chairman Peter Califano related that information the commission received from the Board of Elections regarding submission deadline for items to appear on the referendum in November was inaccurate. The commission had been told that proposed amendments to the charter were due 36 days prior to election day. According to the establishing statute for the commission, valid initiatives are due 60 days prior to the election, which would be September 5.

The commission began by discussing the current chain of command for the Department of Public Works. Currently, the city employs a city engineer, but does not have anyone in the position of director of public works. The charter currently states that the director of public works is the city engineer, but it does not state the reverse, that the city engineer be the director of public works.

The commission is interested in removing that line from the charter, so that the two positions can be held by two different individuals. This would allow the city engineer to focus on tasks which require specialized knowledge and the prioritization of emergency work while the director of public works focused on operational management. The change would not preclude one individual from holding both positions. The commission voted unanimously to pass a motion to write a draft version of the change for further discussion at their next meeting.

The commission also discussed the possibility of introducing term limits for common council members to the city charter. Term limits for council members currently do not exist. Council members are elected for two year terms; the commission is considering a change that would limit them to holding office for between two and four terms. The commission members were uncertain if other cities limit the number of terms for which an alderman may serve. If an amendment were made it would take effect in the 2016 election year, with that being considered an elected official’s first term under the limit.

The commission is currently considering the amendment partially to address a concern that potential candidates might feel they cannot or should not run for office if it would displace an incumbent. This could be due to a feeling of respect, or the feeling that their efforts would be futile.

Commission member Michael Chiara said that he personally thinks that, “We really should put everybody’s feet to the fire, and we shouldn’t allow everybody to stay in. I’m going to use an example. You can build up a constituency, you can build up a treasury, you can build up all kinds of things, and a lot of people won’t run just for that. We should put up the issue and get rid of public apathy and allow people to say we’re going to put somebody else in because they’re forced to. ”

He went on to say, “I don’t like the idea that you have politicians in for 20 some years just because it can happen. We should say that’s the end of it, let’s change. Because we do not know if there are people out there who are very bright, who might bring something different to the table, but they don’t have the opportunity.”

Califano brought up the point that while uncontested elections do occur, it isn’t necessarily an issue of respect or intimidation, rather it may simply be a lack of interest. Limiting the number of terms that an alderman is allowed to serve for could lead to seats being left vacant.

An amendment to create two at-large common council positions was previously approved by the board and will appear on the referendum. These two positions could be filled by a person living anywhere in the city rather than having to come from a specific ward, avoiding the problem of a candidate feeling intimidated to run against an incumbent. Ultimately, the commission passed a motion to table the discussion on term limits.

The Charter Review Commission will meet at least two more times before their submission deadline. The next meeting will take place on Thursday at 5 p.m,. and a long meeting will be held on Monday beginning at 2 p.m.

Ashley Onyon

Ashley Onyon is a graduate of the journalism program at SUNY Albany. She has contributed articles to The Mohawk Valley Independent and the annual journal Upstream.