ITHACA, N.Y.—While it has flown a bit under the radar, the City of Ithaca is 12 short months from a major shift in its government structure. As time goes by, how that structure will look after the dusts of change settle is becoming clearer bit by bit.
After the city manager reform was approved in November’s referendum, discussions on the finer parameters of the job and a search for who will be the first to hold the position will dominate much of the early part of 2023, with whoever is appointed to the job by Common Council slated to start in January 2024. It appears now-Chief of Staff Deb Mohlenhoff, a former longtime alderperson who returned to the city in December, will play a large role in facilitating those two initiatives, as she delivered a presentation at this week’s City Administration (CA) Committee meeting detailing the transition.
Mohlenoff said the city attorney’s office had spent significant time going through the city code, reviewing each mayoral responsibility or role and determining whether that power should remain with the mayor or if it should be reallocated to the city manager, a role that is generally supposed to be the CEO of the city while the mayor’s position becomes a bit more ceremonial, but will still be involved in policy making and will take a spot on Common Council to vote.
Some of the larger questions appear to have been answered, like who will handle department head hirings and firings (the city manager will, but there will be Common Council involvement), yet there are others that remain murky. Mohlenhoff mentioned contract routing as one example of a duty that must still be decided, among others.
“I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you exactly how we’re going to change all of these things, and what that would look like, but there’s an intense amount of really in-the-weeds detailed work that needs to be looked at,” Mohlenoff said.
The current draft job description for the city manager role, albeit not finalized, is shown below:
Mayor Laura Lewis commented that she would anticipate frequent updates to the City Administration Committee as well as several Committee of the Whole meetings as the transition’s more nuanced details come to bear. Alderperson Robert Cantelmo, chair of the committee, asked for an update on the timeline for when a job posting might be officially released, to which Mohlenhoff answered that it’s still murky but that a firmer timeline could be in place by the CA Committee meeting in February.
“We are aware that we’re under a time crunch with that,” Mohlenhoff said.
A rather poorly kept secret within city government is the sentiment that Mohlenoff may have returned to Ithaca City Hall, where she served as not only an alderperson but as acting mayor under former Mayor Svante Myrick as well, with her eyes on vying for the city manager position eventually. That would, of course, create an obvious conflict of interest in that Mohlenhoff would be helping create a position that she would then seek. Mohlenhoff addressed that scenario, in part, during the meeting.
“I want to be quite transparent about the fact that probably that piece of the design will be run by human resources,” Mohlenhoff said in response to a question from Alderperson Jorge DeFendini regarding Common Council’s involvement in the selection process. “I’ve been quite transparent about this with everybody else so I’m going to say it here also. I was hired into this position knowing that the Chief of Staff position ended at the end of this year. I have not made a personal decision and I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but if I decide that I’m interested in applying for [the city manager] job, then I think it’s extremely inappropriate for me to be involved in the design of the process of how the person is selected.”
Mohlenhoff acknowledged the strange balance of that statement, and it wasn’t immediately clear where the borders are on her involvement or whether there will be a deadline for her to decide if she wants to apply for the job or not.
“We’re walking a really fine line here,” she said. “Needing to do the work in order to set the city up for success for this big government transformation, but also really maintaining my ability to make the choice as to whether or not I want to apply for the position when it comes open.”
Alderperson Jeffrey Barken suggested that during the upcoming deliberations on the position before the committee and Common Council, city managers from other places be invited to appear at those meetings and potentially answer questions from council to educate them on successes and foibles they’ve experienced that the city could hopefully avoid. Barken also floated the idea of using those times to examine whether someone from out of the area with city manager experience would be the best pick for Ithaca since they’d be able to enter the job with more foundational knowledge.
Barken also referred to some of the worker discontent that bubbled to the surface last year, and Mohlenhoff added that city staff she has spoken to are supportive of the city manager transition.
“I think it’s really important that we highlight the positives of this, that way it can gain momentum as the year goes on,” Barken said. “The more people who we bring into the process, we can really show how a city manager is going to be interacting with their departments. That can be a real tool that could improve some of the problems we’ve been dealing with.”