Shift to strong mayor rejected

SYDNEY SCHAEFER/WATERTOWN DAILY TIMESThe city of Watertown’s Charter Commission is recommending that the city retain the city manager form of government and not move to a strong mayor system.

WATERTOWN — After meeting twice a month for 14 months, the city’s Charter Commission has come back to recommend that the city should keep a city manager form of government.

The 10-member Charter Commission on Friday afternoon announced its findings.

It was not a big surprise that the commission would come to the conclusion to retain the city manager form of government and not move to a strong mayor.

The commission went through the old charter and also ended up recommending some other smaller changes that should made to the City Charter.

The entire commission was in agreement with keeping the city manager, member Cyd Converse said.

“It was thoroughly looked at and vetted,” commission chairman Jeffrey M. Smith, who on Tuesday won a mayoral primary that allows him to move on to the general election.

Councilman Ryan Henry-Wilkinson ran on a platform to make the change to a strong mayor when he ran for election in 2017.

“I was hoping it would be put on the ballot, even if people did not agree with it,” he said. “I think it should be given an up or down vote.”

Mr. Smith, however, said the commission put together a new charter that would be best for the taxpayers. The question, he said, should really be whether the city was getting a better charter.

Councilman Henry-Wilkinson said the findings about the strong mayor were rumored earlier this week, which has generated more people wanting it to go to the voters even if they don’t want that form of government.

They just believe voters should decide it, not the commission, he said. The councilman urged residents to attend public hearings about the new charter that will be held in July.

The other changes will be put on the ballot for voters to decide in the Nov. 5 general election. Although commission members are recommending a series of changes, residents will vote on just a single document and not on a number of amendments, vice chairman Jeff Fallon said.

Earlier on Friday, council members were given a copy of the draft copy of the executive summary and proposed new charter.

Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. formed the Charter Commission in response to Councilman Henry-Wilkinson’s proposal. After the 2017 election, he appointed its members.

The biggest change would be establishing a deputy city manager who also would serve as a public safety commission.

The deputy city manager, who would be appointed by the city manager, would fill in during the absence of the city’s chief executive office.

“The Public Safety Commissioner shall have responsibility for the following functions, boards and/or departments in City government and shall organize the same to ensure operations: Police Department, Fire Department, Code Department, and Health Officer,” according to proposed charter.

The commission also recommends that there would no longer be a fire chief but a position of the director of the fire department, appointed by the public safety commissioner.

The fire director would “have immediate direction and control of the fire department, subject to policies, rules, regulations, and orders established by the

Commissioner of Public Safety.” The fire director would assist the public safety commissioner in providing appropriate training for personnel and ensure that applicable provisions of the fire codes are implemented.

Over the past 14 months, commission members interviewed former mayors, former city managers, City Clerk Ann Saunders, former department heads and others. They’ve reviewed city charters from Oswego, Utica, Plattsburgh, Saratoga Springs and other communities.

Some of the changes involve cleaning up language in the old charter, Mr. Smith said.

For instance, commission members discovered the City Charter mentions that the city has fire and police departments, an engineering office and a Department of Public Works but doesn’t indicate anywhere else in the document their responsibilities or functions.

“It really cleans up the entire charter,” said Mr. Smith, who also served two stints as a council member.

Over the 14 months, some commission members left; others joined in the efforts.

The public hearings will be held on July 10, July 18 and July 23 to educate voters about the proposed changes.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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