Sunday January 13, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- As the city’s Charter Review Study Committee hones its choices for governmental revisions, an oft-discussed option has emerged with support on the 11-member committee -- the so-called "strong mayor" format.

If approved by the mayor and City Council -- and then by Pittsfield voters in November -- the relationship between the council and mayor would change dramatically as early as 2015. Such a revision would place more of a focus on the mayor, where supporters of the option believe it should be.

"I think it does make a whole lot of sense," said Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, referring to the municipal plan many cities in Massachusetts have adopted.

The central feature gives the mayor the authority to appoint most or all department heads and other employees, which could include naming members of boards and commissions. With the city’s current so-called "weak mayor" format, the City Council reviews appointees submitted by the mayor and can reject them.

Bianchi said that charter change -- combined with a possible four-year term for mayor -- has gained wide support on the charter committee and would allow the mayor to forcefully pursue policies with his or her team.

As for a longer term in office, "It would have the potential of diminishing the politics" that can come up almost immediately after a mayor is sworn in, Bianchi said. "You are only in office a few months, it seems, and there is political activity. It makes it harder to concentrate on the work of the taxpayers."

A four-year term and the ability to appoint and dismiss department heads would tend to "minimize politics and enhance professionalism in government," he said.

The mayor, who is beginning the second year in his two-year term, said he would like the charter group to also consider upgrading administrative staffing, as well as pay increases to make Pittsfield more competitive when hiring top officials.

The next charter committee meeting -- during which the public can offer comments and suggestions -- will be Tuesday at 5 p.m. in council chambers at City Hall.

Former longtime North Adams Mayor John Barrett III, who worked under the strong mayor format during his 26 years in office, said: "The big thing with the strong mayor form of government is it allows for leadership and the ability to carry out a vision for the city."

He added, "Policy should come from the mayor’s office, as well as vision, and he should have the authority to appoint his own people."

North Adams had a city manager/council format and later a weak mayor/council format from the 1950s through the mid-1960s. The city adopted the current government -- called a Plan A municipal form with strong mayoral powers -- in 1965.

The city also eliminated wards at that time and began electing nine councilors at large, Barrett said.

"That was done to eliminate a lot of the parochialism," he said, and to allow councilors to consider the needs of the entire city over that of a ward.

That option hasn’t been discussed during charter committee meetings in Pittsfield, although longer terms -- likely of four years -- for councilors and for School Committee members were supported by some officials during hearings held by the charter group.

Another important aspect of the strong mayor format in North Adams, Barrett said, is that the mayor also is chairman of the School Committee.

The Pittsfield charter committee is expected to issue its final report during the summer to the council and mayor, and any ballot proposals to alter or overhaul the city charter could then be revised or placed on the November ballot as is.

Because municipal charters are allowed under a section of Massachusetts law, the state Legislature also must review and approve a petition from the city on the changes before the citywide vote. Approval by the Legislature usually is routine.

Among councilors, support has been expressed for giving the mayor a four-year term and for some form of strong mayor format, but it remains unclear whether the council is ready to give up its authority to review mayoral appointments.

Council President Kevin Sherman said support on the council for retaining authority to review appointments is "a mixed bag" at this point, but he favors the change.

"I support the idea that a mayor should be able to appoint his or her team," Sherman said. "I think that makes sense on a lot of levels. It is more of a hindrance at this point to have 11 people chiming in on a personnel decision."

Sherman also favors a four-year term for mayor, as do most councilors and other city officials who have spoken up during charter group public hearings.

Councilor at-large Melissa Mazzeo said she thinks council review should remain in the charter, but has proposed a modified process adopted in Northampton and elsewhere in the state, which she said would reduce the likelihood of a nominee being questioned and rejected at a full council meeting.

That charter option has the mayor refer all appointees to a subcommittee of the council, which would review them and make a report to the full council.

"People who have questions can get them answered there, not before the council," she said. She added that, if residents think the mayor should have more appointment authority -- or favor other governmental options -- now is the time to express those views during the charter committee meetings.

Pittsfield currently operates under the "Plan B" option for municipal government, which allows council review of appointments, while North Adams uses the Plan A form.

The basic formats, outlined under Chapter 43 of Massachusetts General Laws, have been modified in one aspect or another depending on the preferences in each municipality.

For instance, some department heads could be subject to review by the council while others are appointed directly by the mayor.

The option already rejected -- though not officially eliminated -- in a vote of the city charter group is for a city manager/council format, called Plan E. This would have the mayor as a member of the council and acting primarily in a ceremonial role -- and usually elected by fellow councilors.

According to the Massachusetts Municipal Association, there are 46 communities in the state with a full-time mayor, eight with a manager/council format, 36 with elected town meeting representatives and a select board, and 260 with an open town meeting and select board.

Referring to the strong mayor format, Barrett -- who now serves on the North Adams City Council -- said the option doesn’t mean "the council is weak." He said councilors still must approve budgets, funding and all financial decisions, and can investigate and request information from the administration, as well as require the mayor to appear before the council. Department heads can’t be required to make that appearance unless it is allowed by the mayor, he said.

Ward 6 Councilor John Krol said he was sorry to see the manager/council format dropped so soon by the charter committee. He said he understands that committee members received negative feedback about the idea from residents, but said, "We always get comments" about any issue, and public sentiment could change the more an idea is discussed.

Krol also said he supports a four-year term for mayor and increasing salaries for administrative posts, but he was noncommittal on the need for the mayor to have appointment authority.

"I think it should be looked at," he said.

To reach Jim Therrien:
jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_therrien

Massachusetts government formats

Massachusetts government formats

Full-time mayor/council 46

Council/manager 8

Elected town meeting representatives 36

Open town meeting 260

Source: Massachusetts Municipal Association