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North Country News

Commission And Mayor Clash Over Ballot Language

In March, Plattsburgh’s mayor appointed a citizens’ commission to draft changes to the city charter.  But with the deadline for ballot proposals looming, the mayor is now concerned that what the group is crafting will confuse voters.

The Charter Commission is assessing language and updating Plattsburgh’s 113-year-old governing document.  Some changes, such as gender-neutral references, can be approved by the city council. But voters in November will weigh in on proposals to change city governance.   One ballot item gives three choices: a revised charter with a mayor-council government, a revised charter with a city manager-council government, or keeping the status quo.  Another ballot item would create staggered elections for city councilors and extend the mayor’s term to 4 years.
Independent Mayor James Calnon wants the commission to reassess the form of governance question.  Calnon says they’ve combined two questions in one proposal when there should be three items.   “Separate them out.  They’ve already drafted a very good new charter.  They have drafted language to implement strong mayor in that new charter as well as to implement city manager in that charter.  And then they’ve also come up with a very good system of how they might stagger terms.  Well, those are your three questions.  I think they should be put out as three questions. If it gets too complicated, if it does get over-thought, then maybe it loses its clarity. When people look at all the propositions on a ballot, if there’s more than a dozen words they go ‘ahhh, vote no.’  I mean it really is about being sure that you really get the essence of the proposition on the ballot clearly and concisely and let people make a choice.”

Calnon is also cautioning the commission to craft more concise proposals.   “Do you want a new charter? Yes or no. Yes says you get a new charter. No says you keep the old one.  Do you want to change the form of government? Yes says you move to city manager. No you remain with strong mayor.  Do you want to stagger terms or not? Three fairly simple questions.  When you mix them you could create some really bad possibilities. If you had three options for the question – I’d like to have a new charter with strong mayor, a new charter with city manager, or keep the old charter, then 65 percent of the people could say I want a new charter but if they split it between the two forms of government then the 35 percent that’s left is going to decide the issue and that’s the problem.  You don’t want a minority decision.”

The commission has had long conversations over how and what to place on the ballot according to chair Luke Cyphers.  He says the proposals they are considering are succinct.   “You have a new charter with a strong mayor where some of the powers of the mayor are a bit different than the current charter. You have a new charter with a city manager with a fairly complete overhaul of the government. And you have the old charter, the existing charter.  The fact that there are three items on the ballot doesn’t preclude one of those items getting 50 percent.  This was a very difficult place to get to.  The final meeting where this decision on the three-way proposal came was a very spirited discussion and this was a compromise that everybody could live with.  So at this point I think it would be very difficult to kind-of tear up what we did and start over.”

The commission must have final ballot language completed and submitted to the Clinton County Board of Elections by August 25th for the November ballot.