ITHACA, N.Y.—Common Council members will meet Wednesday with aims at concluding recent debates around specific powers and authorities council members will have once a new city manager is expected to start work in January of next year.
The council intends to vote to approve a draft of an amendment to the city charter, codifying the position of city manager. The delayed vote comes after lengthy discussions of the intricacies of the new role’s duties and responsibilities at recent meetings.
Time is an important consideration for council members and Mayor Laura Lewis. She has been emphasizing to members the importance of approving the amendment post-haste, in the interest of starting the nationwide search to fill the position by the beginning of 2024.
Wednesday’s meeting could potentially signal the end of the discussion process before moving to the search process and vetting of candidates.
Mayor Laura Lewis sent the draft of the amendment to the city charter to members July 10. Since then, members have voiced, on and off the floor, concerns that some key aspects of the amendment would divest a degree of authority from the city’s electeds.
“The city manager is not a democratically elected position,” Alderperson Jorge DeFendini said in an interview. “Policy is made by people who were chosen by the residents of the city, and at the end of the day, that’s what’s important.”
Alderperson and mayoral candidate Rob Cantelmo told The Ithaca Voice he thinks this vote is “one of the most consequential” the council will take in a decade, and will “set the ground rules” for how the transition to a city manager form of government is going to be managed.
As written, the draft requires council to reach a two-thirds majority vote to remove the city manager. This vote is difficult for a body of any size to obtain because it requires the number of votes in favor to be at least twice the number of votes against.
Cantelmo has been outspoken in recent meetings about preferring a simple majority vote to dismiss a city manager.
Cantelmo said in an interview he thinks this type of voting procedure “maximally empowers council, collectively, in their role as policy makers and oversight of city government.”
Many members share this concern, like DeFendini and Alderpersons George McGonigal and Ducson Nguyen.
McGonigal told The Ithaca Voice he is “definitely opposed” to voting to approve the amendment if it includes the language requiring a two-thirds majority vote.
Like the two-thirds vote requirement, councilors are also concerned that a non-interference clause included in the draft would limit the influence of the Common Council.
This clause prohibits council members from requesting the appointment or removal of city officials, and states that council cannot give orders to city employees in public or in private.
To Alderperson Cynthia Brock, the clause would restrict the voice of the council, which is also a concern among other members like Tiffany Kumar as well.
“We were voted into office for a reason,” Kumar said in an interview. “To my knowledge, most everyone is in agreement that the clause should be struck.”
McGonigal said he wants the language “clarified” so that it is apparent that the clause allows council to “discuss issues with any member of staff, but not direct staff. That’s not the council’s job.”
Brock said she wants the non-interference clause placed into the Common Council’s rules of procedure, rather than the city charter. The rules of procedure are a guiding document for council, but are not legally binding.
If the non-interference clause were kept in the charter, Brock said, “it would have to be very clear and not restrict council people from issuing advice or recommendations to the city manager.”
Lewis sent the drafted amendment to members just two days before the Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting was scheduled for July 12 to discuss recommendations for revisions.
A number of members of council voiced frustration with the limited time they had with the draft at the COW meeting, including DeFendini, who said he was uncomfortable moving forward because he “needed more time” to delve into specifics before he would be ready to discuss.
Members are going into the meeting Wednesday “really feeling the time crunch,” according to Kumar.
Alderperson Donna Fleming said that she thinks a compromise will be reached at the Wednesday meeting.
“Based on the conversations I’ve had with colleagues I think we’re going to come to an agreement,” Fleming said. “Maybe not everyone will be 100% happy but I think it’s going to work.”