Pittsfield Councilors Weigh in on City Charter Issues
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Significant levels of agreement punctuated by key divergences in opinion emerged Tuesday in the ongoing discussion about the future structure of local governance as nine city councilors laid out their ideas to the special committee tasked with reviewing Pittsfield's aging charter document.
Similarly to the four mayors who came before the Charter Review Study Committee two weeks ago, councilors expressed overall unanimity on the idea of increasing mayoral term lengths, with four years being the most frequently proposed time period.
What role the mayor should have in government saw more distinct difference in perspectives, with several councilors advocating the concept of a dual mayor and city manager system.
"A city manager offers the advantage of ensuring that the day-to-day administration of the city is in the hands of an experienced professional with all the skills and experience he needs to do the job, and not in the hands of the ballot box," said Councilor Jonathan Lothrop, who said such an administrator could work with just a City Council or in tandem with a mayor. "The city manager attends to the increasingly technical aspects of operations and it would leave the mayor to attend to the outside needs of government, such as state and federal partners to obtain needed funding sources. The downside to the mayor-manager form of government is the very indirectness that some citizens may feel about decisions they do not like."
The city manager possibility is one of three major options for city government in the commonwealth that the charter committee has been examining. While about three-fourths of all Massachusetts cities have a mayor as their municipal executive, the cities of Palmer, Franklin, Randolph, Watertown, Chelsea, Braintree, Southbridge, Winthrop and Barnstable have city managers in lieu of an elected mayor, while Lowell, Worcester and Cambridge have both a mayor and manager, with differing responsibilities.
The charter review body was previously advised by its hired consultants that most cities that have recently changed to a city manager system have done so as the result of some kind of crisis.
Councilors John Krol, Barry Clairmont and Chistine Yon ardently supported the idea of introducing a city manager that would be hired by the City Council and who would hire and manage city personnel.
"You remove a ton of politics by having a city administrator responsible for those day-to-day operations," suggested Clairmont.
"Good is good, and excellent is excellent," agreed Yon, who proceeded to give an extensive list of the expertise areas for managing governmental operation, aspects she said were required learning that those who go study to become town and city managers. "I don't think anybody [in Pittsfield's mayoral history] has had it all."
Councilor Christopher Connell suggested that rather than restructuring to a city manager, the charter committee may want to look at the possibility of expanding the current director of administrative services to some kind of "deputy mayor."
There was general consensus on the need for maintaining seven representative ward councilors, and at least two if not the current number of four at-large councilors, citing the benefits of representation along with the total workload of the council.
"You really need 9 or 11," said Councilor Melissa Mazzeo, in order to populate the various subcommittees along with other commissions and boards on which councilors must serve. "Having the number of bodies there is also to get the amount of work that you need to get out of it."
Creating some form of compensation stipend for members of the public School Committee, the city's other major elected body, was a charter change that proved very popular with the councilors present.
"I think one way we can include is to make the process of being involved in government more enticing to those who have talents," said Council President Kevin Sherman. "We want to entice those who are talented to be leaders in our community ... is to provide a stipend for School Committee members. I feel very strongly about that, and I think that it's very important."
Sherman also proposed halving the current ballot signature requirements for at-large city councilors. Currently, 300 are needed to be on the ballot for both mayor and city council at-large elections, while only 150 are needed for the office of state representative.
Councilor Churchill Cotton suggested moving the city election cycle from odd years to even, citing the typically lower voter turnout for municipal elections than for those of state and federal races.
The committee will meet once more this year and continue about twice a month throughout the spring of next year, with a minimum of two public hearings will be held to present the committee's ongoing findings.
After the study committee has completed its review, any recommendations it makes must be accepted by the mayor and a majority of the City Council, then pass through the state Legislature before being put to a city wide vote. Any changes made would then take effect in 2014, except for changes to terms of elected officials, which would not take effect until the start of 2016.
Tags: charter review,