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Pittsfield Council Passes Charter Review Commission Plan

By Joe Durwin
Pittsfield Correspondent
08:14PM / Wednesday, May 23, 2012
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — After weeks of discussion, the City Council voted 8-3 Tuesday in favor of a revised process for establishing a commission to review the city's charter of governance.

Among the council's recommendations are that the body consist of eleven members —  four selected by the mayor and seven by the council — the city hire a professional consultant and that the commission makes its recommendations in one year's time. The proposal will now be referred to Mayor Daniel Bianchi's office.

The initial order for establishing a charter review by Bianchi called for a nine-member commission with members appointed by him and subject to council approval.

Over the course of two subsequent special meetings, councilors discussed an alternate scenario in which the council and mayor would share the selection of commission members. 

At the conclusion the last special meeting, the council reached unanimous consensus on an amended proposal by Vice President Jonathan Lothrop. While Bianchi was unable to be present at that meeting, Director of Administrative Services Donna Mattoon, representing Bianchi, said he was receptive to splitting appointments with the council.

"He'd like to see representatives selected by the City Council but would also like to have the opportunity to select a number himself," Mattoon said.

At Tuesday's regular council meeting, however, Councilor Melissa Mazzeo raised concerns that the current charter would not allow the City Council to make appointments. She pointed to Article 26 of the city's charter, that says the mayor shall appoint all members of the city's boards and commissions, as well as department heads and various other positions. 

"I think there is precedent, as far as commissions being created, to have representation from different areas and not simply appointed by the mayor," said Ward 6 Councilor John Krol. "This happens on the School Building Needs Committee and other ad hoc boards."

Several councilors said the provision was applicable to those positions listed but not of an ad hoc committee outlined in their proposal. 

"We clearly articulated that due to the desire to get this process moving, we are choosing the ad hoc method," Lothrop said. "The ad hoc method is a format that other communities have used but which is not contained within our charter ... I would argue that what we are embarking upon with this ad hoc method is outside the venue of the charter itself."

Lothrop went on to say, "The difference is that we are talking about the charter of the City of Pittsfield, which affects both the legislative and executive branch ... there is no other board or commission of which that can be said."

City Solicitor Kathleen Degnan stated that while Article 26's "language is ambiguous" it was her legal opinion that this portion of the charter was applicable even to such a charter review commission.

Bianchi concurred that the charter was applicable and suggested that instead of splitting appointments, each councilor provide him names of possible appointees.

"If you give me two or three names a piece, I promise to come back with a commission that represents the whole city," Bianchi said.

Councilor Lothrop maintained his belief that this ad hoc process did not come under the purview of the charter, and suggested the city might want to seek a legal second opinion from the secretary of state.

"I think it's a highly debatable point," said Lothrop.  "I don't think we've heard a legal opinion, I think we've heard Ms. Degnan's opinion."

Councilor Christopher Connell asked if there were any direct ramifications of going forward with the council's proposed recommendations for establishing the commission.

"Unless someone challenges it I don't think necessarily that there's dire consequences," said Degnan, "My legal recommendation is that we follow the charter, but that's just a recommendation."

A motion by Mazzeo to strike the section of the proposal recommending that the council appoint seven members failed 5-6.

The motion to refer the proposed recommendations to Bianchi, with an amendment that no current elected official could be eligible, passed 8-3, with Councilors Paul Capitanio, Barry Clairmont, Connell, Krol, Lothrop, Anthony Simonelli, Kevin Sherman and Christine Yon in favor and Councilors Churchill Cotton, Mazzeo, and Kevin Morandi opposed. 

The charter has not been significantly revised since 1932. The most recent attempt was in 1995 when Mayor Edward Reilly appointed a charter review commission but that commission made no alterations.

The desire to update the city's current charter was first enunciated by Council President Sherman one year ago, in response to controversy over then Mayor James Ruberto's decision to bypass council approval on key appointments.

Tags: appointments,   charter,   city council,   

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