October 23, 2011

Mayor Seeks to Reduce Power of City Agency

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After overseeing the city’s infrastructure for the last 100 years, the City of Ithaca’s Board of Public Works should be downgraded to an advisory role, according to a memo sent from Mayor Carolyn Peterson to the Board of Public Works.

The memo, signed by Peterson and City Attorney Dan Hoffman, argues that the mayor and Common Council should have ultimate responsibility for public works decisions, citing “disagreements and jurisdictional conflicts between the board and Common Council,” and the “inefficiency and duplication of effort” of having two parallel governing bodies.

Revising the board’s role is “long overdue and should occur soon — rather than trying to ‘reform’ the current outdated, inefficient and problematic arrangement through incremental steps,” the memo, first obtained by the Ithaca Independent, states.

The authority of the board is being revised by the “Working Group on Charter and Code Review” — a sub-group appointed by Peterson — to consider “whether the structure put in place a century ago is still the best and most effective approach for addressing the city’s public works needs and issues,” according to the recent memo.

The changes also downgrade the board from part of the city’s charter to the city code — a decision that will require voter approval.

Various current and former commissioners of the Board condemned the proposed changes.

Wade Wykstra, a commissioner on the Board of the Public Works and an Independent candidate for mayor, said that he was still “reeling from the news” and that he was upset the proposed changes to the city’s charter had not been made through an “open-door process.”

“The meetings of the sub-committee had no minutes, no announcements and no public meetings,” Wykstra said. “And I don’t even think [these changes to the charter] are legal according to the state.”

Wykstra also doubted the Common Council’s ability to pay sufficient attention to the provision of city services.

“I don’t see how Common Council is going to keep up with these things — services have to go on, roads have to be plowed,” Wykstra said. “I think that it’s going to be done in an even more clumsy fashion.”

Cynthia Brock, a former commissioner of the Board of Public Works and a candidate for Common Council, echoed Wykstra’s sentiments and lamented the potential loss of a knowledgeable body of decision-makers.

“As a community, we need to take advantage of the energy and passion of those who are dedicated to enhancing how our city government functions and the best way to do that is to encourage participation and give them meaningful avenues to make change,” Brock said. “The Board of Public Works has infinite knowledge of our city’s service, and when you take away their ability to provide meaningful contribution, it will be harder and harder to find people who will spend the time and energy to be involved.”

However, other city officials said they were open to the proposed changes if they would increase the efficiency of delivering city services.

“I’m in favor of anything that would make the government more accountable and more efficient,” said Common Council member Svante Myrick ’09 (D-4th), the Democratic candidate for mayor. “I’m open-minded to the change, and I’m willing to consider the move to see if it will do just that.”

Common Council member Ellen McCollister ’78 (D-3rd) said she considered the proposed changes to be “routine’ and having to do with “redundancies in personnel work.”

Original Author: Liz Camuti