The Proposed Albany City Charter: For Better or For Worse

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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

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

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

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

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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