Why I Get Mad When I Read the City Charter
By City Councilwoman Pam Tarlow
Many of you may not know this, but I’ve worked in the public sector for over 20 years. Anyone that believes government is easy hasn’t seen what I’ve seen. The work is complicated and requires a deep commitment to the people you serve. But to me, there are a few aspects that really matter: uniting the community, public health, safety, and planning for a resilient, sustainable future. There are lots of players in this venture. Volunteers and other citizens, elected officials, and staff, all of whom must work together to ensure a positive outcome. Teamwork, process, and structure are imperative for our success.
The structured role of the City Council and City staff are laid out in a charter, which is similar to a constitution. Our laws are codified to support our charter and these laws are supplemented with state legislation, judicial interpretation, and the state constitution. I explain this because I’ve read our Charter. And read it. And read it. I’ve read it so many times because I believe that much of what this current Council does confounds that mission.
Ironically, my adherence to the Charter has placed me outside the majority. Citizens do not see this since it’s not televised, but I have been verbally attacked again and again in City Council executive sessions. (Most recently for 25 minutes.) Somehow, along the way, I became the “dissent”. It wasn’t purposeful. I did not seek confrontation. But I began to see a pattern of behavior in the majority’s lack of strategy and continuity of ideas and a shortfall in values like kindness and, most importantly, consistency with our objectives. My refusal to yield to the majority should have triggered automatic discussion but such needed conversation was discouraged by Mayor Josh Cohn. I have heard someone say, “Why does Councilwoman Tarlow get so angry?” The answer is that I believe much of what the Mayor and his allies on this Council are doing negatively affects your family’s quality of life and future and they’re not telling you. It’s often done without public input and, I believe, sometimes conflicts with our Charter. That upsets me.
A major example was the hiring of the Interim City Manager. Although our state and federal governments have three branches of government, our local government has two. There is a legislative branch (the Council and Mayor) and, in our Council-Manager form of government, an executive called a City Manager. This individual is an independent, public policy professional who manages staff operations and liaises with the Council. He or she is employed by the City and leads from experience, guiding the Council to a proactive and professional objective outcome, without politics.
Before I was sworn in, someone was placed in this role for the City of Rye. I believe that this person did not meet the qualifications of prior hires or the local industry standard. The Charter requires a qualified candidate, but when he was hired as Interim City Manager — with a guaranteed two-year salary — there was no real discussion, and no other interviews were conducted. The agenda item concerning his hire was a late addition to the Council agenda.
In the 14 months since, the shortcomings of this decision have emerged. For example, Mayor Cohn has signed the Manager’s name to agenda reports, effectively making recommendations for political outcomes that please the Mayor and completely undermine any separation of powers. As the current City Manager is an interim, the process of recruitment for a qualified city manager is long overdue, but the administration recently said there was “no reason to even recruit for the position, as he wants to stay in it past the two years.” Please understand that this is not a personal criticism of the Interim City Manager. It is about process and good government. And it is not a minor budget item; the pay package each year equates to about 2% of the total tax levy.
As you can see, therefore, the hiring of a City Manager is an important financial and strategic hire. And the way this latest hire was conducted raises a lot of questions. Why did the Mayor want someone without experience? How does that facilitate a successful agenda? At the last Council meeting, January 6, we discussed the lack of an updated master plan for the City. The Mayor did not provide a satisfactory answer, but the evidence is clear. In his three years in office, one of the single most important resiliency and sustainability objectives was missed. He blamed this on the pandemic, but he missed the same opportunity in 2018 and 2019. And do not forget that the Mayor sets the annual legislative agenda.
I am learning that politics is brutal. Politicians like George Latimer and the late John McCain are a rarity. I continue to read the City Charter and attempt to honor you, the citizens, by following it, even when it may highlight others’ errors. And so, I read, and I question, and I listen. And sometimes, I get angry.