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The Proposed Albany City Charter:

For Better or For Worse

by Rezsin Adams

Is the new charter the best the city of Albany can have? Absolutely not. Can we get a better deal? Who knows. Harold Rubin, Albany City Charter Commission Member, gave a presentation on the proposed charter and the work of the Charter Commission at the September vegetarian lasagna dinner at the First Presbyterian Church in Albany. His talk helped answer a lot of questions about the proposed charter.

Albany became a city and was chartered in 1686 and is still operating under its original 300 year old charter! It is the oldest city charter in force in the United States. The charter sets up the city government. The charter affects everything city government does&emdash;it is Albany's constitution.

The principal failure of the old charter is the lack of balance of power between the strong mayor and the weak legislative body (the common Council.) The Common Council established a 19-member revision commission which began work in January 1997 and which terminates on November 3 when the proposed charter is presented to the voters at the General Election, with the question on the ballot, "Shall the new City Charter proposed by the Charter Commission be adopted?" The commission met at least 39 times and held at least 11 public meetings.

The proposed charter continues the four elected officials&emdash;mayor, comptroller, treasurer and president of the Common Council&emdash;and the election of Common Council members (15) by wards (no at large members) with four year terms (no term limits,) The comptroller's position will be abolished in 2010 and a Chief Fiscal Officer be substituted and the Treasurer's duties increased in 2002. But why should there be an elected Treasurer? The Treasuer's duties are routine, not policy-making. There should be one elected "watchdog" and an appointed treasurer.

In the proposed charter, the Common Council is strengthened in its voting requiements: local laws and resolutions shall require a simple majority of the entire Common Council; legislation authorizing bond debt shall require a two-thirds vote of the entire Common Council and overriding the Mayor's veto shall require a two-thirds vote (the old charter requires a three-quarters vote, which is difficult for the Council to do.)

The Common Council is also somewhat strengthened in the budget process. The proposed charter provides that the Mayor submit the budget to the Common Council, which can accept or amend the budget, can increase or decrease items. The Mayor has line-item veto power and the Council has the power to override. But the Common Council is not given specific power to hire staff and to submit a separate budget (as city departments do.)

An undesireable feature of the proposed charter is the retention of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment which consists of the Mayor, Comptroller, President of the Common Council and two city employees appointed by the Mayor. The Board of E. &A. creates jobs, sets salaries and, among other powers, in the proposed charter, has the power to transfer funds up to 4% of the total budget (now about $4 million) but as the year progresses and more and more of the budget is spent, the percentage increases.)

The old charter gives the Mayor enormous authority to appoint all nonelected department and office heads and members of commissions, authorities and boards, except the Mayor's appointments to the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Planning Board, in the proposed charter, are subject to advice and consent of the Common Council (2 out of more than 40 such bodies.) Who acts for or accedes the Mayor&emdash;the elected president of the Common Council&emdash;is clearly stated in the old charter; it is obfuscated and vague in the proposed charter.

What is a "strong" mayor? An elected (rather than an appointed) mayor but there should be a balance of powers (checks and balances.) &emdash;the elected president of the Common Council&emdash;is clearly stated in the old charter; it is obfuscated and vague in the proposed charter.

What happens if the new charter is voted down? There can be another commission appointed to continue the work or the Common Council could accomplish revision by amendment (which would go to the voters) but the amendments could be vetoed by the Mayor.

Comptroller Nancy Burton has said: "I'm opposed to the new charter. If I can't understand the job description of the job I'm now in and if the Common Council members can't understand their job descriptions, how are the voters going to be able to understand the document?"

Six members of the Common Council have come out strongly opposed to the new charter, and have put out a statement called, Two Steps Forward, One Century back: an Analysis of the Proposed Albany Charter by Council President Helen Desfosses, Council Members Nicholas Coluccio, Carol Wallace, Sarah Curry-Cobb, Shawn Morris and Daniel Herring.

The dissenters write, "The proposed charter does not adequately address the four factors that led the Common Council to establish the Charter Revision Commission: improving accountability to the taxpayers; establishing the checks and balances necessary for more open government; promoting separation of powers; ensuring legal clarity in the definition of roles, reponsibilities and practices in city government. Regarding all four factors, the proposed charter falls distressingly short. We cannot support this document, nor can we urge voters to do so."

published Oct/Nov 98 Newsletter


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