By JOE LoTEMPLIO
---- — PLATTSBURGH — A move is under way to explore the idea of changing the City of Plattsburgh’s form of government.
Longtime property-owner and businessman Neil Fessette is leading an effort to see if there is enough interest to change from a strong-mayor system to a city manager.
“It appears this may be the right time to transform the way our city is governed,” Fessette wrote in a letter he sent out to about 100 taxpayers, business owners and community leaders.
With Mayor Donald Kasprzak announcing that he will not be seeking re-election and all six Common Council seats potentially being filled by newcomers in this year’s election, Fessette believes a lack of experience on the new council could be a cause for concern.
“There is no succession plan in place, which is pretty scary considering the complexity of operating a city/business that has a $50-plus million budget and 230-plus employees,” he wrote.
With a city of about 20,000 people and an annual budget of more than $53 million, a professional manager is needed to handle the day-to-day responsibilities instead of an elected mayor, who could be unqualified, Fessette argues.
To change the structure from what is known as a strong-mayor form to a city manager would require a change to the city’s 111-year-old charter.
ADJUSTING THE CHARTER
There are three ways to change the charter: by charter commission, by initiative from the public or by direct Common Council legislation, according to the Department of State.
All three options would require a public vote on items put forth for consideration.
The most commonly used method to change a charter is by commission. That panel, according to state law, must feature between nine and 15 people who live in the city, appointed by the mayor.
The city formed commissions in 1992 and again in 2006.
The 1992 commission put the idea of eight-year term limits for the mayor and council on the ballot, which was approved by voters.
The 2006 panel, appointed to review the City Charter, folded without offering any recommendations.
Another option is for residents to submit a petition with enough signatures on it to seek charter amendments.
In Plattsburgh, such a petition would require 500 signatures or 10 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last gubernatorial election, according to the state.
The Common Council could also determine its own charter amendments and bring them forward for a vote, but that method is seldomly used.
MOSTLY STRONG MAYORS
If a change to a city-manager form of government format is approved, the mayor’s job would be reduced to a legislative function, running meetings and presiding over ceremonial events.
Statewide, 41 of the 62 cities, or 66 percent, operate under a strong-mayor and council system, while 18 or 29 percent have a council-manager system. Only 3 or 4.8 percent, employ a commission system, where elected commissioners head individual departments of the city.
Fessette, a registered Independence Party voter, said the move to change the charter is not political in any way.
“It’s just good business sense to think about this,” he said. “If someone not qualified is elected, it would not be fair to them, and it wouldn’t be fair to the taxpayers either.”
The mayor’s salary, set at about $70,000, is probably not high enough to attract many qualified mayoral candidates, Fessette said.
“It will cost more money to hire a city manager, but you get what you pay for, and that’s how it works with public companies. They have someone qualified to handle the duties, and they have a succession plan in place.”
Plattsburgh councilors are paid $10,000 per year.
Fessette is also suggesting that the format change so all six council seats are not up for election at the same time. Staggered terms would ensure that some experienced councilors would have a chance of staying on, he said.
The Clinton County Legislature, with public support, opted to stagger the terms of the 10 legislators, beginning with the 2011 election.
The county is headed by a legislature chairman (Jimmy Langley, R-Area 7, Peru) but is run daily by County Administrator Michael Zurlo.
Fessette said he will monitor the response to his letter, and if there is enough support, he will approach the Common Council about starting the process of revising the City Charter.
So far, he said, responses have been overwhelmingly in favor of exploring the idea of a change.
“People are worried,” he said.
City Corporation Counsel John Clute said the process of forming a commission, studying the charter and making recommendations would take too long to provide any changes in time for this election year.
Fessette said the idea still needs to be pursued now if there is enough support.
“I think we should get the process started and get the idea out there and see if that’s what the people want,” he said.
Kasprzak, 57, has been mayor since 2007. Before being elected, the Republican worked for the State Department of Parks and Recreation for 10 years. He also was a Plattsburgh business owner for two decades and served on the Common Council from 1990 to 1994.
Ward 2 Councilor Mark Tiffer is running for mayor this fall as a Democratic candidate. Tiffer, 29, works for United Parcel Service as a safety supervisor. He has been on the council since being elected in 2010.
Tiffer said he believes he is qualified to be mayor but sees merit in looking at the city-manager form of government.
“I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think I was qualified,” he said. “If the general public wants this and the council wants this, then it might be a good idea to pursue this.”
Tiffer also supports the idea of staggering the council terms.
“This election highlights some vulnerabilities our system has,” he said.
“Potentially, there could be no one on the council with any experience at all, and that could be difficult.”
City Republicans have yet to come up with a slate of candidates for the November election.
Email Joe LoTemplio:firstname.lastname@example.org