Handing over control of the Controller

Posted: June 3, 2013 in Government
Tags: , ,

There is an important vote coming up for City of Amsterdam residents tomorrow to change the office of the Controller from an elected one to an appointed one, and to change the budget approval process.  The vote was announced back in April, and the issues have been discussed before. However given that the Amsterdam Blogsphere has been relatively dormant on political issues lately, we’ve seen little online discussion on this important issue. I have a hunch that this vote snuck up on many (ok, admittedly on me). So here it is, one last chance to cram-debate on this issue before the vote tomorrow.

The ballot proposition reads as follows:

Amendment to the Amsterdam City Charter
Shall Local Law Number 2 of 2013 be approved?

This local law will eliminate the elected office of Controller and replace it with a Controller appointed by the Mayor, subject to approval by the Common Council. This law will also amend the budget process; the new process provides that the Mayor shall submit a Proposed Operating Budget to the Common Council for approval. The Common Council may then make changes to the proposed budget. If the Mayor objects to the changes, then the Common Council could override the Mayor’s objections by a four-fifths super-majority vote.

The vote will be held Tuesday June 4, 2013 at City Hall, 61 Church Street, Amsterdam, NY. Polls will be open from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Source

I have yet to read one solid argument for keeping the current budget process, which was initiated under previous Mayor Joe Emanuele’s term. The current “cage match” style of crafting a budget by committee is wildly inefficient and it seems most people are ready to finally ditch this idea.

I believe the change to the Controller’s position, overall, is the right one. I have great faith in the public (probably more than most) to pick the best candidate among several choices. However, our choices are currently limited to those who are willing and able to execute a public campaign.  I think that handling a campaign is a fair test for people running for Mayor or Common Council. These people directly represent the public when it comes to creation of the laws we all live by and have to be able to respond to public opinion. However, keeping our city’s finances in order is a fairly objective task, not an ideological one.  I see the Controller’s position as a type of department head, similar to a police chief or fire chief, which have always been appointed positions for this very reason.

My only concern with an appointed Controller, is that the selection process may end up in political fighting and backroom deals. Of course, that type of stuff probably happens anyway within parties when it comes to supporting various candidates for any office. But at least now, when a Controller is elected, there is no further argument and the person can get to work knowing the public is behind them.

And I wouldn’t be as concerned about the politics of the situation if it weren’t for what went on back in January of 2012, when the Common Council voted down the appointment of Gerard DeCusatis, only to have the Mayor nominate him again and refuse to appoint anyone else. To me, this action undermined the basic principle of checks and balances which has been a foundational part of our nation’s system of government and which is modeled by all states and localities. The fact that DeCusatis is still in office and that the Common Council subsequently approved a whopping raise for him, is a dead giveaway that behind the scenes politics were in play on this.

One thing I would have liked to see on this proposal is something that would explicitly prohibit the Mayor from selecting the same person again after being voted down once by the Council.

If this proposal passes, we have to remember that as citizens, we still have a right to be heard on the issue of who gets appointed to the Controller’s position, as well as any of the other appointive officers. If this new arrangement goes into effect and doesn’t end up serving the public well, then we need to be ready to demand yet another change.

  1. I see you equate the Controller position with other department heads using the Police Chief and Fire Chief as examples. These are good examples of what can happen to an “appointed” position that supposedly serves conterminous with the Mayoral election or for a 6 six year term. The State Civil Service Department has the power to change these positions from unclassified to classified. They have done so with both the Police Chief and Fire Chief positions. This means that candidates for these positions must pass a Civil Service exam and the appointment must come from the top three candidates on a civil service list. Once appointed to the position, they have the job until they retire or die. Instead of serving at the pleasure of the Mayor, they serve according to Civil Service law. I believe the City Clerk falls under this category as well.

    The same debate could be made for the position of Controller. Once it is removed from an elected position, the people may not have a choice. It would actually benefit NYS to create a classified position of Municipal Controller to standardize local finance. If this is done, all the requirements of education and experience along with length of service are no longer determined by the people.

    With that said, I do believe we need a change in the system that is currently in place. The City Corporation Counsel has become a vocal member of city government. Instead of serving as an advisor to both the Mayor and Common Council, he has often taken an adversarial role which has no place in city government. Mr.DeCusatis is a very intelligent, likable person who has managed to increase his salary and budget over the past two terms at a rate that exceeds any other city employee. I actually commend him for that accomplishment.

    I will vote for the charter amendment because we need a change from the dysfunction of our current system. It is not perfect but it is a start. There will always be a political power struggle in government. I am more concerned that our elected officials represent their constituents and not a political party. At times there is a huge disconnect between the two. When was the last time you had the opportunity to talk with your Alderman and let him/her know your opinion?

    I do have a problem with how this special election is being conducted. One polling place for the city is not sufficient. There are standards for conducting elections and the city has only requested two optical scanning voting machines for all of Amsterdam’s registered voters. What measures has the city taken to reach our Spanish speaking citizens?

  2. xsubsquid says:

    While I have no dog in the Amsterdam hunt, the only point I’d like to address is the notion that running a campaign is a fair test for people running for Mayor or Common Council.

    My experience, for what it’s worth, is that the skill set needed to run campaigns bear almost no resemblance to the skill set needed to be a competent legislator. Those skills are not precisely the opposite. They are simply different. Too many times I’ve seen glad handers and baby kissers make it into office and then get that deer in the headlights look when it suddenly becomes real to them that pontificating wildly about things they no nothing about simply isn’t going to work when it comes to understanding policy decisions.

    But, despite that minor point of disagreement, I agree this is a good decision and marvel that it is not already in place. As much as Gloversville in particular, and Fulton County in general, have their issues, it always seems like Amsterdam (City of and Town of) are often 5 to 10 years behind.

    It would be something to gloat about if we weren’t facing our own screwball issues.

    • Tim Becker says:

      I have no doubt that that some people are great at campaigning but not so great at actually doing the job once elected. But the way I see it, if someone struggles with campaigning, then they will most certainly struggle in a position where they are under constant public scrutiny. So it’s in that sense that I call it a “fair test”. The controller does take some heat around budget time, especially with the budget committee format that we currently have where the controller gets to vote on the budget. But if this passes, the job we be mostly behind the scenes.

      The current budget process was only introduced less then ten years ago (I think) by the previous Mayor. So if this passes, we are going back to the way we always did it. So see we are progressive here in Amsterdam, at least we tried something different. So there 🙂

  3. The Recorder is reporting the Charter change was voted down.

    • Tim Becker says:

      Ah well. I saw your comment on FB, I agree, the two proposals should have been split up. I’d like to see the budget process proposal again on the ballot in November.

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