Plattsburgh Officials Discuss Their Roles As Outlined In City Charter

May 19, 2018

Plattsburgh Mayor Colin Read called a special meeting of the Common Council Friday to review their duties and responsibilities as outlined in the City Charter.  But some clauses appeared to become less clarified as the discussion progressed.

Corporation Counsel Dean Schneller said the workshop was scheduled based on ongoing discussions in order to clarify city leaders’ duties and powers under the charter.  He focused on the sections of the charter pertaining to the powers and duties of the council and the mayor and then worked each provision of those sections.

Most clauses were fairly mundane but a couple led to extensive discussion.   The most intense occurred as Schneller explained the section defining prohibitions on councilors.  “In essence in order to I guess preserve the mayor’s supervision powers over his employees except for purposes of inquiries which is not defined and investigations that Councilor McFarlin just referenced individual council members shall deal with, in broad term, city officers and employees who are subject to the mayor’s supervision solely through the mayor. And individual council members shall not give orders to any such office or employee publically or privately.”

Councilors offered examples of interaction with city employees and department heads. Ward 4 Independent Peter Ensel raised concerns about the subjectivity of the charter language.  “Everything is open to interpretation and it would depend upon whose interpretation it is!”
Dean Schneller:  “There’s validity to that. I mean this isn’t a perfect document. Now you do have the power to have inquiries. And so there’s another ambiguous term of what does that mean?”
Peter Ensel:  “Right.”
Schneller: “There is no definition of inquiry in this Charter so inquiry is…”
Ensel: “Would be a question any just asking a question.”

Ward 3 Republican Dale Dowdle found that interpretation of what councilors can and cannot do would come down to something as simple as placement of a comma in the text.  “So this is where a lot of I think confusion is.  I think those are two separate issues. One is for inquiry which is asking a question. One is for investigations.”

Councilors quizzed the city attorney about their ability to question city employees questions on behalf of constituents. Schneller advised that based on the charter’s language, any inquiries should be reviewed by the mayor’s office. But Ensel said the language is not clear and such an interpretation unduly restricts councilors.
Schneller tried to explain:  “It’s an inquiry but it’s also being perceived as an order so a cautious best practice would be to limit those types of questions, orders.”
Ensel:  “But then it almost seems like we’re handcuffed in doing our responsibilities.  As an elected official I mean I think our constituents come to us and vote for us and put us in office to be their representative and to answer their questions and provide them with answers.”
Ward 1 Democrat Rachelle Armstrong:  “So perhaps the message that we’re arriving at here with this interpretation is to redirect a constituent to make their own call.”
Ensel:  “Then why are we here? We’re here to set the budget and that’s it?”
Mayor Colin Read:  “You’re here to legislate and not to manage isn’t that the distinction?”

Ensel doesn’t think department heads are confused over whom they report to.  “I don’t think that’s been an issue at all. I think all the department heads recognize and understand that they report to the mayor.”  

The meeting occurs as the council is reviewing a proposed Code of Conduct, which Dowdle adamantly opposes.  He believes this review of councilors’ roles and that mayoral proposal are linked.  “What’s out there now proposed for the Code of Conduct, whether that remains or not, certainly it’s a resolution in my eyes to dismiss good parts of the Charter. It was brought forth by the mayor and presented it to us. It still is coming up at each meeting and we’ll have to see where it goes.”

Plattsburgh’s city Charter was revised in 2015 after review by a Charter Commission and approval by the common council and voters.  

The proposed Code of Conduct has been tabled by the council for further review.