Charter Commission holds public hearing on proposals

Anthony Agresta, Peter Califano, Gerard DeCusatis. Photo by Tim Becker.

Peter Califano, Chairman of the Charter Review Commission, gave a presentation Monday evening at City Hall outlining the five proposed changes that were approved by the commission over the previous months. Commission members Anthony Agresta and Michael Chiara were also present along with Corporation Counsel Gerard DeCusatis. Only a few other residents were in attendance. A question and answer period followed the presentation. The proposed changes will be on November’s ballot for City of Amsterdam residents to vote on.

Download the full text of each proposed amendment in pdf format here: Amendment 1, Amendment 2, Amendment 3, Amendment 4, Amendment 5

The first proposed change would remove the mayor as the presiding officer of the legislature. Currently the mayor chairs each common council meeting.

Califano likened the situation to “President Obama chairing every meeting of congress.”

With the proposed change, the common council would choose their own chair. The mayor would still be able to propose legislation, but it would be up to the council to decide whether to give him or her the floor to speak during the meeting, other than during the public comments portion of the meeting.

Also with the proposed change, the mayor would be allowed to select his or her own deputy mayor. The deputy mayor would only have authority to act if the mayor were incapacitated.

The second proposed change would establish two additional “at large” council seats, increasing the number of council members from 5 to 7. These new positions would be elected by and represent the entire city, not just an individual ward.

Califano said that one of the reasons for the proposed change was to keep city-wide representation in the common council, given the other proposed change to remove the mayor from the council. Califano also said he believed the additional council positions would give residents more representation, giving residents additional points of contact for the council.

The third and fourth proposed changes include numerous edits to the existing charter which according to Califano do not add or take away any powers of the mayor or legislature, but rather clarifies existing language to avoid ambiguity. Califano said the decision earlier in the year by the Montgomery County Supreme Court was used as a guide. The changes, among other things, affirms the mayor’s power to negotiate contracts and explicitly states that council cannot compel the mayor to sign a contract. The changes also affirm the mayor’s power to fire city employees as well as hire within the constraints of the approved budget.

The fifth proposal would establish a minimum funding level for the mayor and controller’s office. The council would be prevented from reducing the funding levels for these departments below the current percentage of the total budget that the departments are currently funded at unless either the mayor or controller consented.

In regards to the last proposal, former Alderman David Dybas said “vote it down, it stinks to high heaven because there is no way to rationally determine what the proper amount is.”

Dybas said that he could see three different ways to calculate the minimum amount, each giving a different result.

DeCusatis said that he believed any method of determining the minimum amount would come out the same.

“I come from the accounting side, you come from the legal side,” said Dybas, “an you’re not spelling it out specifically. If you were to specifically say that it was the ‘total gross expense’ of the controller, undistributed, then I would agree.”

DeCusatis said that the intent of the proposal was to calculate the amount as Dybas had described.

Dybas said that the commission had failed to make the language explicit enough.

Jerry Skrocki, who had previously been appointed to the common council’s charter committee, said the third proposal was the one he was most concerned about.

Skrocki said, “This proposition takes a lot of power away from the council as far as contracts. You limit the common council approval to award contracts that are subject to competitive bidding requirements. Which means that with any other contract the council has no power to approve or disapprove.”

Agresta said that the council would still have the power to approve or disapprove contracts under chapter 36, which deals with powers and duties of the mayor.

Skrocki also asked for clarification as to whether the proposed language for section j of chapter 29 would nullify chapter 47 of the city code which pertains to city purchasing. The section in question gives the council the power to:

…enact general rules and regulations that reasonably regulate the contracting for the purchase of equipment, materials or services within appropriated amounts. No such rule or regulation shall require Common Council approval of a specific expenditure if such approval is not specifically required by this Charter. Any such requirement enacted previously is hereby superseded.

DeCusatis said that chapter 47 would not be nullified because it is a “reasonable” regulation.

In regards to the overall intent of the proposed change, DeCusatis said, “The legislative function is to pass laws and set rules. The executive function is to follow those rules. If you are going to then create a situation where you’re going to manage through the [legislature] as to who is going to be contracted with or whether you should buy your paper [from one vendor or another] then you are really undermining that process.”

Skrocki said the language was still too ambiguous and open to interpretation.

Califano closed the meeting by pointing out that the commission was compromised of a politically and professionally diverse group and that all proposals had been approved by the commission by at least a two-third’s majority. He also added that he planned on scheduling one more public hearing before election day in November.

Tim Becker

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