Proposed Council Charter Change Prompts Outcry From Previous Councilmembers

A change in the Rye City Charter is not an everyday occurrence. Historically, amendments have been made because the language was archaic and in need of updating or a directive was no longer applicable.

Published September 25, 2014 7:31 PM
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A change in the Rye City Charter is not an everyday occurrence. Historically, amendments have been made because the language was archaic and in need of updating or a directive was no longer applicable.

By Robin Jovanovich

A change in the Rye City Charter is not an everyday occurrence. Historically, amendments have been made because the language was archaic and in need of updating or a directive was no longer applicable. But in the case of the City Council’s recent request to amend portions of Articles 6, 8 and 12, which would expand their role to include the hiring and firing of the Police Commissioner, and remove that authority from the City Manager, a number of longtime residents have expressed serious concerns and asked the Council to reject the plan.

At the Council’s last meeting September 10, former Councilwoman Carolyn Cunningham said, “Giving the Council the sole authority over the appointment, suspension, or removal of the Commissioner is a mistake.” She described the proposal as “ill-advised” as it “constitutes a weakening of our non-political city manager form of government. The power of the city manager to discipline and remove a police commissioner is even more important than the power to hire one.”

Meg Cameron, who chairs the Rye Democratic Committee, said the proposed change would “blur the boundaries between our elected officials and city employees and open the door to political patronage and corruption.”

She added, “There are many communities where, if you want to work for the town, it helps to do a favor for your town councilman. There are communities where if the mayor’s son drives drunk, the police look the other way. We don’t have that kind of corruption in Rye. That is because our city manager system of government and the laws as they are currently written make it impossible.”

In a letter to the City Council on Wednesday, Beth Griffin Matthews, who served on the City Council from 1985-1993, wrote: “I urge you to reject the proposed change to the city charter that would allow elected officials to approve the appointment, suspension, or removal of the police commissioner.

“The City Charter appropriately assigns the city manager authority to hire and oversee the police commissioner. It’s critical to insulate the police department from politics, or the appearance of political intervention.

“Your role is properly limited to the appointment of the professional city manager who is the City’s chief administrative officer. You are citizen legislators and policy-makers, not administrators.

“Despite occasional weaknesses in its implementation, our city manager system has served the community well. Please do not expand your power and duties beyond what is established by the charter.”

Former Councilman Arthur Stampleman made the point that the proposed ordinance makes “a fundamental change in the charter because it removes one-quarter to one-third of the City’s staff and budget from the authority of the City Manager.”  If the Council cannot be discouraged from the proposal, he is of the view that it should go before voters. While he agrees with Corporation Counsel Kristin Wilson that the ordinance does not trigger any of the specific rules in the NY Municipal Home Rule Law, “it does trigger, at least in spirit, the rule requiring a referendum for a new charter.”

The current Charter states: “Except for the purpose of an official inquiry, the Council and its members and committees shall deal with the administrative departments and services of the city for which the City Manager is responsible solely through the Manager, and neither the Council nor any member or committee thereof shall give orders to, or require action by or information from, any subordinate of the City Manager either publicly or privately.”

In a phone interview with Deputy Mayor Laura Brett this week, she said the Council sought the advice of the Corporation Counsel before proposing the Charter change. “If we were proposing to expand the powers of the City Manager, that would have had to have gone before voters. But limiting, restricting, or sharing powers with elected officials does not require a referendum.”

Brett, a partner in a Manhattan law firm, added that the legal distinction made sense to her. “Ordinarily, a Council would expect the City Manager to share information regarding the Police Commissioner; this ordinance formalizes it.”

She continued, “The role of the Police Commissioner is a really important one, especially as he takes on an increased role in public safety. The proposal speaks to the fact that his employment is fully vetted by the seven Council members. It doesn’t give the Council to select the Police Commissioner; it gives us the right to approve the decision.”  She added, “ It’s a check on the role of the City Manager. I don’t think it’s bad to have a check on the role of the City Manager.”

The matter will be on the agenda at the next City Council meeting, Wednesday, October 8 at 7:30 p.m.

 

 

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