Sixty-Five Years of Rye City Managers

While a council-manager is the most common form of local government, it differs from the system of most large cities like NYC and LA, which function under the mayor-council structure.

Published April 11, 2024 10:59 PM
3 min read

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New York state’s Municipal Home Rule Law gives cities broad powers to manage their govern- mental operations, discharge their responsibilities, and satisfy local needs. When the village of Rye became the city of Rye in 1942, its charter provided for continuation of the system of government, run by an unpaid mayor and council, which had operated successfully in the village for many years.

Beginning in 1958, however, there was a long and heated debate that led to a referendum vote in 1959 on whether to amend the city charter to adopt a city manager-council form of government. A non-partisan citizen’s committee and the League of Women Voters both recommended a charter revision to adopt the city manager plan. The mayor and most of the council members opposed the proposal, but it was passed by a majority of the Rye voters.

Rye’s amended city charter provides that the city manager is the chief administrative officer of the city, reports directly to the city council, and serves for an indefinite term at the pleasure of the council. It is the city manager’s responsibility to supervise and coordinate the work of all city departments, prepare the tentative budget, hire personnel, and work with city officers, boards, and commissions appointed by the council.

While a council-manager is the most common form of local government in the United States, it differs from the system of most large cities like New York City and Los Angeles, which function under the mayor-council structure (also known as a “strong mayor” system). A report by the University of North Carolina stated that “most of the nation’s most successful cities and towns have adopted council-manager government rather than the ‘strong-mayor’ form. council-manager government encourages neighborhood input into the political process, diffuses the power of special interests, and eliminates partisan politics from municipal hiring, firing, and contracting decisions.”

Since Rye established the position of city manager, many people have occupied that office. No one has served the people of Rye longer or better than Frank Culross, who assumed the position in 1978 after working in local governments in Arizona and Michigan. He initially retired in 2000, but briefly returned as city manager in 2003, because Julia Novak, the person hired to succeed him, had resigned.

In 2009, Culross came out of retirement again after the city fired Paul Shew, its city manager since 2003. Next came Scott Pickup, who was initially hired as assistant city manager before being appoint- ed city manager in June 2010. In April 2014, Pickup resigned, and Culross came to the rescue once again, filling in for a year before Marcus Serrano was hired in June 2015. He had served as Dobbs Ferry’s village administrator for about seven years. Less than five years later, The Rye Record reported that Marcus Serrano had tendered his resignation on Oct. 16, 2019, adding: “Mayor Josh Cohn furnished no details regarding Mr. Serrano’s departure, which was not unexpected in some quarters.”

This paper also reported that the mayor “was brimming with enthusiasm” about the city’s newest manager, Greg Usry, stating: “Greg not only brings 30 years of experience in municipal finance, but also has executive experience, and he knows our city, our city staff, our challenges. Through his leadership of the Finance Committee, he’s been watching the way the city works for the last two years.” Usry was initially made an interim manager, but his current contract runs until Dec. 31, 2025.

A recent article in PublicCEO, which focuses on local government, described the numerous challenges facing city managers that require them to make tough decisions. It concluded: “City managers are to be commended for having the educational ability, willingness to serve, judgment and personal skills to be successful in filling this vital leadership role in local communities. However, to aid city managers in addressing these challenges, there must be collaborative efforts within the communities in which they serve if we are to truly empower them to be successful.”

Rye residents should be better informed about the “collaborative efforts” being made between the council and city manager.

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