Saturday, April 27, 2013

The City Charter

I recently joined the ranks of many former and present city officials who have testified before the City Charter Commission.  I shared the commissions meeting agenda with Councilwoman Rebecca Williams and Public Safety Director/Police Director Martin Hellwig.  I found their comments both interesting and educational.  I share Bernice Paglia's view that Martin's suggestion for civilian Police and Fire Directors reporting to the City Administrator was the highlight of the meeting.

Before summarizing my suggestions, I want to give credit to the Charter Commission members.  They take this job seriously.  They are Rick Smiley, John Stewart, Mary Burgwinkle, Marie Davis and Jeanette Criscione.  I don't know if their excellent work will lead to improvements in the city charter.  That's up to elected officials. What they will be giving us is a detailed and insightful recording of the recommendations of people who know Plainfield government from the inside over the last 30 years.  When they are finished their work, I look forward to reading the commission's report which will include their recommendations, distilled from the testimony of their many interviewees. 

In general I find Plainfield's charter adequate and non-controversial.  There is some room for improvement in my opinion:
  1. The City Council can investigate alleged wrongdoing and impose fines up to $200.  That's too low to be a deterrent so I recommend fines up to $1000.  Wrongdoing in city hall is a very serious concern.
  2. Compensation of elected officials for expenses -I have seen this abused at League of Municipality conventions and out of state conferences.  Approval for expenses by the full City Council by resolution should be required.
  3. The City Clerk must be appointed by the City Council.  The charter only requires that the "Clerk of the Council" be appointed by the City Council.  According to previous Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson, these are separate positions and his opinion negates the balance of power needed for effective checks and balances between the Council and Mayor.
  4. The Corporation Counsel is supposed to serve the Mayor and Counsel. It does not put one branch of government above the other.  When there are differences between the two branches, the Corporation Counsel should be a legal resource to both.  That was not the case with Mr Williamson who saw his role as primarily serving the Mayor.  In my opinion, the previous Corporation Counsel, Ms Drakeford, had a more balanced approach to serving these two branches of government. To effect a more balanced approach, the charter should give the City Council power to reinstate the Corporation Counsel if he/she is fired by the Mayor, just like reinstatement of the City Administrator or department heads is a power given to the City Council.
  5. Annual budget submission deadlines are mentioned in the charter but municipal budgets are chronically late, often approved around 6 months into the year!  The charter should specify consequences to the Mayor for late introduction and to Council members for late approval.  Something like paying double property taxes (just kidding).
  6. Recall of elected officials should be a difficult task but not so difficult that citizens are discouraged from trying.  The percentage of signatures on recall petitions is set too high.  It should be lowered to a level that will make elected officials think twice before flagrantly disregarding the law and/or the public.
  7. The charter should mandate training for newly elected Mayors and Council members.  Such training must be completed within the first year of office or that seat is forfeited.  Knowledge of the roles and responsibilities of elected office is that important and most of us come to the job partially prepared at best.
I underlined two recommendations that deserve special attention.  The 7.5 year relationship between Mayor Robinson Briggs and City Council has brought balance of power forward as a major concern.  All branches of government tend to want their power maximized but this relationship is an outlier, for reasons related to personality.  Neither a charter, nor ordinances or resolutions, can fix this problem. But an adequate balance of power can minimize its negative consequences.  Educated elected officials - who know the responsibilities and limitations of their roles - will be more effective than Plainfield's municipal government has been these last 7.5 years.  Another preventative medicine would be for the Council to budget for and appoint a staff person to research and support Council legislative initiatives and to get answers to questions independent of Mayoral and administrative responses.


olddoc said...

Cory, doesn't he Charter give the Council the right by a 2/3rd vote to negate a Mayor's firing an appointed City Official a sin the Bibi Taylor case? Would this not be applicable to the Corporation Counsel?

Cory Storch said...

The charter says the Council can reinstate "a department head or the city administrator" section 3.5 (b). It could be construed to include the Corporation Counsel but vagueness leads to conflict and litigation which can be avoided by clear language in this section. It would be just like Mayor Robinson Briggs to sue the Council for such an action. Some elected officials have no compunction about wasting the taxpayers money.