ITHACA, N.Y.—While behind the scenes in City Hall there is certainly hard work being done to prepare for the transition from a mayor-council system to a city manager structure after November’s referendum, to the public it can seem like the process is moving at a glacial pace.
Wednesday’s meeting of the Committee of the Whole, meaning every Common Council member met in City Hall outside of the normal Common Council monthly meeting, introduced council members to how their jobs may change after the transition, set to take place at the start of 2024. For the public, while the information may prove useful, meetings held later in the summer will hold more significant information on the change.
Chief of Staff Deb Mohlenhoff, who has been leading the development of the role along with the City Attorney’s office, guided the presentation and conversation throughout the night. It was the first of three revelatory meetings the city plans to hold on the transition: Wednesday’s was for rules of procedure, how meetings are conducted, who reports to whom, etc. This summer, Common Council will meet again to discuss the selection process for a city manager, with a third meeting dedicated to determining staffing and structure of the different departments and some of the projected budgetary impacts (for instance, how many deputy city managers there will be).
The city manager position can be a bit vague, but its general explanation is simple. The duty of the position is to “implement the policies established by Common Council and ensure that the city is operated in an economical and responsible manner,” usually compared to the County Administrator-County Legislature dynamic that Tompkins County uses.
From large to small, the city discussed changes that will either be undertaken or should be considered by council. Alderperson George McGonigal cautioned that it may be unwise to change things unnecessarily all at once, and that it may be smarter to assume a piecemeal approach, adjusting as the need for some tweaks becomes clearer.
Mohlenhoff reassured McGonigal that what was being laid out in front of council Wednesday was a walkthrough of the overall framework, instead of deciding then and there on changes. The change that is concretely known, as Mohlenhoff said, is that the city’s structure of government is changing come January 2024.
The meeting itself was a very nitty-gritty review of the roles that Common Council wants to see the City Manager play, versus what should be left to members of council and what should be the role of the mayor. Overall, the mayor’s position is losing quite a bit of its responsibility, which will be transferred to the City Manager. The public was treated to a new, updated graphic showing what duties will stay where.
For the public who tunes into Common Council each month, the biggest change will be voting procedure. The mayor position currently does not have a vote on Common Council (barring breaking the rare tie vote among council members, which the mayor can break), but under the new system the mayor would have a vote on each issue. The mayor will also set the final agenda for meetings.
McGonigal had a bit of an issue with the idea that the city manager will be the connector between council members and staff, meaning that “council’s relationship with the staff will be through the City Manager.”
“I don’t see how one individual can decide who is going to help Common Council with its problem and who is not,” McGonigal said. “I’m not suggesting that council tell staff how to do its job. But council needs to be able to speak with staff about problems they’ve learned about in their ward.”
Mohlenhoff clarified that the language was meant to codify who would be directly telling staff what to do, not to actually interfere with the rapport between staff and council.
The budget process, as laid out in Mohlenhoff’s presentation, could take a variety of forms but will follow a similar timeline.
As for who will actually be the City Manager, that is unclear. The job description has not been released and a job listing has not been posted. Some of the questions around that could be answered June 14, when the city will hold another meeting regarding the City Manager selection process. The application process is being handled by Human Resources Director Schelley Michell-Nunn and Lewis, according to an answer provided by Mohlenhoff after the meeting.
Mohlenhoff, a longtime veteran of city politics, has been frequently rumored as a contender for the job, particularly since her position of Chief of Staff is slated to be eliminated once the government transition takes effect. She said she would make a decision on whether or not to apply for it when the job description is posted.
“There is a high volume of complicated process changes that will need to be made before the January 1 switch,” she said. “The mayor has charged me as her Chief of Staff to work on the implementation of the changes related to the change in our form of government. While I am not involved in the development of the job description or the search process, there are many other internal organizational changes to be made that I will be working on.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Barken reiterated comments he had made earlier, that he felt like the city was taking unnecessarily long to release the job description, thus slowing the process of choosing and implementing a city manager and, more importantly, potentially reducing the number of candidates who apply for the job.
“I think it would be unacceptable to not have choices when the time comes, so I think it’s really important that we press on the gas and move forward here,” Barken said, referring back to the former job description prepped by Fleming. “I’m concerned that when we have a good basis to begin that search, we are stalling, and the people are wary.”
Lewis contended that the city is not stalling, using the city’s hiring of an experienced consultant to help with the search as evidence of its forward progress. Shortly thereafter, the meeting was adjourned.