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City Council Considers Charter Changes After Cutting Four Departments

Luke Cyphers addresses Plattsburgh City Council
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Luke Cyphers addresses Plattsburgh City Council

Last week, Plattsburgh city leaders approved eliminating four departments in an attempt to save more than a million dollars in the 2018 budget.  During this week’s meeting, the Common Council approved public hearings on city charter changes to remove those departments.

Last week, Mayor Colin Read broke tie votes to abolish the Engineering, Recreation and IT departments.  Councilors unanimously approved ending the Human Resources Department. 

Chapter 48 of the City code establishes and outlines the function of the City Engineers department.   Chapter 98 does the same for the Recreation department.  This week’s agenda included amending the city code to eliminate the affected departments. Mayor Read also set public hearings.  “These are bookkeeping to make sure the Charter’s consistent with the resolutions .”

City Recreation Department Director Steve Peters admonished city councilors, noting that an exhaustive process to change the charter occurred less than 18 months ago and almost 80 percent of city residents approved changes at that time.  “To me the charter is the constitution of the city.  And this is why there was a referendum and a public vote to establish the community’s expectations of its own government. That’s really what it is. A vote to overturn the demands of the public in a few weeks or that hearing makes that Charter Commission and public referendum really, really pointless. And I struggle to see the value in that. So I implore you to consider that the public voice has already been heard and that it should be honored.”

City charter revision commission chair Luke Cyphers stepped up to note that in devising and revising the city charter over a period of many months, the commission wanted to crystalize core functions of the city.  Cyphers said those expected services were to remain part of city government, including the departments targeted for elimination.  “I’m worried that by willy-nilly deciding to revise the charter that some of those core functions are going to go away. What I’d like to see is for people to take a breath here.  People spoke loudly.  They liked the charter revision 78 percent to 22 percent. I’m worried that in an atmosphere of panic this council, this city government, is just going to undo that. Budget crises do come and go.  The city charter is supposed to be a fairly permanent document that you work off of.”

City resident Jeff Moore said he did not like the charter change process, and believes city code should be adaptable to the city needs.   "I don’t think it was a overwhelming referendum on the part of the people to say I liked all those changes. They didn’t know what they were voting on just as I didn’t.  And it supposedly was just cleaning up the language and whatever. It’s a living document. And they did make changes. And they’re looking at making changes now. What’s wrong with that?  Things change.  The city is broke. We have to make drastic changes.”

Mayor Read, in his first term, said he has consulted with the co-chair of the charter revision commission and the changes they are currently considering were anticipated by the group.  “They determined that there’s essentially three categories  that we need to preserve:  public safety, fire, police and code enforcement. This co-chair also pointed out to me that they did have a statement they contemplated that in lieu of providing any of these services the city may arrange with other governments and entities such as the town of Plattsburgh or county of Clinton, public agencies or the Plattsburgh City School District to either provide or share such services.  So they did anticipate in these charter deliberations that these sorts of consolidations over time would naturally occur.  They simply merely wanted to state that it’s our obligation to ensure that somehow these services are provided to our public.”

The public hearings on the city charter code changes start Thursday, August 17th at 5 p.m.

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