ITHACA, N.Y.—The City of Ithaca’s government could look quite a bit different come 2024, if the current momentum to create a City Manager role and cut down on the responsibilities of the mayor continues.
Finishing touches were placed and final questions aired at a special Common Council meeting held on Wednesday night, at which the council discussed the nuances of creating the position, what it would mean for the city and how powers would be divided between the manager and mayor positions. There would still be an elected mayor position.
If it passes a council vote in the next few weeks, the full restructure would be up for a city-wide referendum vote in 2022, and would actually take effect at the beginning of 2024—at the end of Mayor Svante Myrick’s current term. While the language of the restructuring was largely finalized, there is not enough time procedurally to hold a Common Council vote on the move at next week’s regular monthly meeting on Oct. 6, but City Attorney Ari Lavine said later in October or at November’s Common Council meetings there would be opportunities to hold a vote.
The move, supported by Myrick, would install a city manager who would answer to Common Council. It’s meant to hire a more specialized person who may have experience and background in running complex organizations, something that may be outside of the scope of whoever wins a mayoral election. Myrick initially introduced the idea at the beginning of 2021, and a working group was soon established to evaluate the idea.
“It’s too much work for one person, which is why the chief of staff position was created a few years ago,” said Donna Fleming, a Common Council and one of the leaders of the working group. “But even with a chief of staff position, the lines of authority are a little bit blurred because the chief of staff has authority only as delegated by the mayor, so it’s still not a clear line of authority.”
Fleming said the city looked at other cities around the state that have city managers and spoke to mayors in those places to gather feedback on the plan. The legislative body hires the manager, in this case Common Council, though the hiring process is not specifically laid out yet.
The mayor’s position would serve more as a figurehead, basically, under the new structure. In Fleming’s words, the mayor would be the “political and ceremonial head of the city,” who would run meetings, appoint volunteers and speak to residents in times of crisis. One way of looking at the proposal is that while the mayor would have less responsibilities, they may wield more power, as they would vote on Common Council matters far more frequently than they do now.
The City Manager would be appointed by the Common Council and serve at that body’s pleasure, with a four- or five-year contract. There’s a much more detailed FAQ-style document regarding the proposal located here in the agenda of Wednesday night’s meeting.
As opposed to the mayor’s duties here is the draft job description for the city manager role that Common Council is considering:
Lavine did state during the meeting that under the new structure, the mayor’s position would likely be a part-time job. Fleming said she fully expects it to be a half-time job, “if it’s managed well.”
Generally speaking, Common Council members were in favor of the restructuring.
“What I liked about this is it’s giving the mayor more say in the decisions of the council,” Alderperson Seph Murtagh said. “Frequently, we’re debating on things and voting on things and the mayor doesn’t have a vote. This would make the mayor more of a functionally voting member of the council.”
Under the current format, the mayor only votes on Common Council matters to break a tie among the 10-member council. Perhaps the most notable example of that in recent memory is Myrick breaking the tie over whether or not to give the Chacona Block a historic designation.
Alderperson George McGonigal compared the mayor’s redefined role to a “councilor at-large,” since they wouldn’t represent a specific constituency on council, other than the city’s residents. With that, McGonigal said he didn’t necessarily support the idea currently.
Alderperson Graham Kerslick asked how the public would be notified of the upcoming vote and its implications, and while alderperson Deb Mohlenoff said she was willing to do whatever type of outreach was desired, she also said that the ability for voters to voice their opinion in the referendum is the ultimate feedback model. Though Mohlenoff is not running for reelection, she committed to still working on it even after her current term is up at the end of this year.
There will likely be an approval vote at some point during the middle of October, barring a procedural hiccup, with another vote to create the city manager position in a Common Council meeting before the end of the year. Then, the public would have the opportunity to give their final approval next year.