To some, creating a chief operating officer for the city would put Bristol on “a horrible road,” while others see it as an essential step to keep the community growing.
A professional overseer at City Hall would be able to "change the culture, little by little, for the better,” said Blake Dellabianca, a developer with a 30-year history in town.
Business officials who spoke during Tuesday’s public hearing on the plan generally favored the charter change that would create the new position while union members expressed skepticism. The Greater Bristol Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors unanimously backed the proposal.
"With a $200 million budget in the city of Bristol, in a city that's continuing to grow, we just feel the necessity to have professional support for the mayor's office is essential," said former Mayor John Leone.
"My concern would be the privatization of city employees," said Sean Burke, a janitor at one of the high schools.
Burke said that a chief operating officer who could rack up four-year terms is going to have some real clout over time.
"If this guy wants to start cutting city employees, I'm concerned," Burke said.
The Charter Revision Commission plans as soon as next Tuesday to complete a report urging that city councilors agree to give voters the last word on whether to add a chief operating officer to Bristol’s municipal structure.
Other proposals on its agenda include switching to an appointed city treasurer and extending the registrars’ terms to four years instead of the two-year stints they currently serve. Nobody spoke on the treasurer change while former city Councilor Tom Ragaini voiced support for longer terms for registrars.
Leone said the continuity and oversight of a professional administrator would improve city operations.
"It would be very helpful to have somebody there who would be there administration to administration, Democrat or Republican, it makes no difference," Leone said.
"I just don't see the need for it," Ragaini said.
Terry Parker, a resident active in Democratic politics, said the position could be created today without revising the charter. The mayor and City Council could hire someone to do the work envisioned for the chief operating officer right now, he said.Ragaini said former Mayor Gerard Couture took "a baby step" toward its creation when he had a $25,000-a-year, part-time assistant. He said officials could go further in creating a new position if it's needed.
Tim Furey, chairman of the charter panel, said the data he’s seen makes him think the new position he backs would cost up to $130,000 annually, but easily pay for itself in improved efficiency within city government.
Dellabianca said elected officials are conscientious and well-meaning, but few have the background to head an organization with a large budget and many employees. He said they need someone with experience "who can manage the day-to-day things."
Dellabianca said some current city supervisors are capable and others are not. The trend, though, is bad, he said.
"Things are getting worse. They're not getting better," Dellabianca said.
"It's just absurd we didn't have a manager-council form of government decades ago," he said. "We're way, way behind."
"You need to do this," he urged charter commissioners. "It disturbs me when I see some of things that are going on."
Resident Chad Lockhart said that towns that have managers have found the professionals haven't been good for labor.
"I went out and voted to try to get the mayor," he said, and bringing in a chief operating officer undermines the value of an election.
"Before you know, you have a city manager who can do what he wants," Lockhart said.
He said an entrenched chief operating officer "could lead us down a horrible road we don't want to be in."
Lockhart and Ragaini each questioned whether the city can afford to pay another costly professional
"Can this town sustain the impact of what this guy's going to get paid?" Lockhart said. "I don't think we need another high-paid official."
If the charter panel adopts the idea, the decision would next go to the City Council. If councilors agree, the proposition would be put on the November 4 general election ballot for voters would render the ultimate decision.
Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.
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