ITHACA, N.Y.—As the weather inches toward autumn, the Common Council of Ithaca moves closer to the November referendum, which includes what could be a significant change to the structure of the city government.
In November 2021, the council unanimously decided that it would create a city manager position, though the final decision will depend on the public’s votes in November 2022. The potencial city manager will be chosen through an appointment process by the mayor and approved by Common Council.
The city manager will replace the role of chief of staff, while also taking over a significant number of responsibilities of the mayor, including overseeing department heads, developing budgets and declaring emergencies. The mayor would maintain a few responsibilities and continue to serve as the presiding officer of the Common Council.
Acting Mayor Laura Lewis was formerly an alderperson on Common Council and voted to approve the city manager position. Lewis said she thinks that the city manager position would make the city government more efficient and responsive to the community.
She said the position would increase the transparency and accountability of the mayor as well, because they would still preside over and have a vote on common council — serving an at-large-position while representing the city as a whole.
Lewis said her current role as acting mayor has given her greater insight into the need for the city manager position.
“It has only confirmed the vote that myself and my Common Council colleagues took last year in unanimous support of moving to a city manager model,” Lewis said.
Lewis said that the city manager model has seen success in other cities, noting that former common council members conducted interviews with mayors and city government officials in other cities as a part of research.
Ithacans don’t have to look too far away for examples of how the city manager structure works. In fact, former Tompkins County Deputy Administrator Amie Hendrix recently took over the job for the City of Geneva.
Elsewhere, Auburn City Manager Jeffery Dygert said having a city manager can ensure the person will have the desired background and experience for the position. Dygert said his journey to city manager was “unconventional” as he was the Auburn fire chief previously.
“Typically the folks in these positions have an educational background in government and leadership and things like that or very frequently they’ll have a finance background,” he said.
Mayors are elected to their positions while city managers tend to be hired to the full-time position by a legislative body. City managers may also make more money than mayors will. The city manager also works more outside of the political realm as they are not elected. There are disadvantages to that, like that voters won’t have a direct say on the person with likely the most power in the city, but Dygert posited that city managers can somewhat avoid partisan politics and focus on governing and management.
Lewis said a preferred candidate for the position would have experience and demonstrated skills in management and serving as a chief executive officer.
“We would be looking at someone who has been able to develop and budgets, for example, because the city manager would have responsibility for working with the mayor, but preparing the budget right now, our budget is worked on by city staff, of course, but it is the mayor’s budget,” Lewis said.
Lewis said that while there is not a definite salary for the position at the moment, there would not be an additional financial burden on taxpayers.
“City Manager would probably command a slightly higher salary than the current Chief of Staff,” Lewis said. “But I think at the end of the day, the cost of a city manager would be similar to our current cost. However, it would once again be a far more responsive form of government.”