'Strong mayor' proposal stalls in Pittsfield Charter Review Study Committee


PITTSFIELD -- The city Charter Review Study Committee seemed close on Tuesday to supporting a "strong mayor" form of government, but that consensus of first blush collapsed amid technical and legal issues over whether the City Council should continue to review mayoral appointments.

The group did support, on 6-3 and 7-2 votes respectively, keeping the council makeup and terms of offices as is and continuing to elect all School Committee members at large, rather than creating ward seats.

They all voiced support for a strong mayor -- or Plan A -- form of government under enabling state legislation. A central feature of the format is that the mayor has sole authority to appoint most or all department heads and employees.

"The main issue is whether the council should continue to approve appointments," committee Chairman Edward J. Lapointe said in asking for a consensus vote. He said a desire to settle questions surrounding appointments was a strong impetus among councilors in their approval of the charter study.

The 11-member committee was formed in August to review the city's charter, which hasn't been overhauled in more than 80 years. The panel hopes to complete a recommendation by April 16 for submission to the council and mayor. Any changes to the charter ultimately would need the approval of the state Legislature and city voters.

Committee members on Tuesday all expressed a desire for a strong mayor form, but questions were raised over the exact details. Some wanted the police and fire chief nominees to require council approval, but Stephen McGoldrick, the charter group's consultant, advised that it is unlikely a council has legal authority to overrule a mayoral pick if the person is chosen under Civil Service regulations and is approved at the state level.

Member Peter Marchetti, a former city councilor, said councils have voted on police and fire chief appointments in the past and suggested gathering more information on the legal issues involved. The committee could also favor removing those posts from Civil Service requirements, which require applicants to score among the highest on an exam and the mayor to choose from among those applicants.

Several committee members also favored council review for the city solicitor, while most said approvals should not be required for department heads and other employees.

Other questions were raised concerning temporary or acting appointments and under what circumstances they should be allowed.

Marchetti was asked to research the Civil Service appointment review issue and others relating to compensation for School Committee members and report back at the next charter group meeting. Officials such as the city clerk and personnel director also might be asked to attend a meeting.

Lapointe and others, who began the discussion favoring the strong mayor format with mayoral appointments, later expressed concerns about it in light of a longer, four-year term for mayor, wondering whether council review would be desirable. The committee has supported the idea of a longer term.

The issue of compensation for School Committee members, which has garnered strong support at committee meetings and is barred in the current city charter, also was postponed pending further information on legal options.

Some members said they want to ensure that employee benefits such as health insurance aren't included in any compensation for board members. The committee also split over whether the charter should say the council "may" approve compensation for school board members or "shall."

Either way, the funding for any pay would need council approval.

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