City councilors solidly rejected a proposal Friday to create a chief operating officer to oversee the administration of City Hall.
“We have a perfect form of checks and balances now,” said city Councilor Frank Nicastro, a former mayor who opposed the suggested charter change.
Though the vote isn’t the last word on the idea, it makes it much less likely that the fundamental shift in the city government blueprint recommended by the Charter Revision Commission will eventually win approval.
The council, on a 5-2 vote, recommended the charter panel drop the idea from its final report, which will likely be submitted in early June. But whether or not charter commissioners agree to drop the proposal, it is clear that the council won’t back it in the end.
However, there is another route to passage that even some opponents said they’re interested in.
The council also gunned down another charter panel recommendation that would shift the part-time treasurer from an elected to an appointed post. Only two councilors, Democrat Craig Minor and Republican Ken Cockayne, backed the change.
The two councilors who backed the chief operating position, Minor and Cockayne, said they would help gather signatures to force the city to put the recommended charter change on the ballot so voters could decide if they want it or not.
“Let’s let the people vote,” Cockayne said. Minor said the decision is “too big” for the council alone to make.
To pull that off, they’d have to collect signatures from 10 percent of the city’s approximately 31,000 voters within 45 days of the final council vote on the charter commission’s report, probably in late June and July.
City Councilor Cliff Block, who voted against the chief operating officer concept, said he’s interested to see if a groundswell of support for the idea really exists.
Mayor Art Ward, who also voted against the position, said he will support the petition process.
The council has the power to put the suggested change on the ballot even if its members don’t agree with the proposal. But there doesn’t appear to be support for doing so.
City Councilor Mike Rimcoski called the proposed chief operating officer “another layer of bureaucracy” that would cost taxpayers too much.
Nicastro said that the strong mayor form of government in Bristol has served the city well for nearly a century and there’s no reason to revise it. He said that arguments that department heads are out of control is “garbage.”
“People seem to be living in the past,” Cockayne said. “We have to be looking to the future.”
Ward said he doesn’t see a need for someone to manage the departments more directly than the mayor can.
“I don’t really believe the COO is going to be contribute anything positive,” Ward said.
Minor said he favors a city manager, but the new post is “a step in the right direction” toward bringing more professionalism to city government.
Minor changes that would double the registrars’ terms of office to four years and revise some wording in the charter section on the city clerk were supported by councilors. They are likely to appear on the November general election ballot.
I'll try to add some more details later about what each of the councilors said Friday so check back over the weekend if you're interested. I'll add them below this story.
Here's what Craig Minor had to say during the meeting:
I am in favor of the council-manager form of government. While the COO is not a true “town manager”, I believe it is a step in the right direction and is long overdue.
I listened carefully to the comments that were made in these chambers earlier this week. I have read my emails, listened to my phone messages, and read the blogs and newspaper articles and letters. Clearly this is an issue that people feel strongly about, and I think the people should be given the chance to vote on it in November.
A number of thoughts occurred to me as I was listening to Bristol citizens express their hopes, and their fears, about the COO, and I would like to share them with you.
1. People have asked, how much will the COO cost? That’s a fair question. I personally think that in the long run the COO will save us a lot more than he costs, but a better way to look at it is to think back to when desktop computers were just starting to become common in the workplace. Everyone wanted to know how much money would they save. Well, as it turned out, they probably didn’t save a penny. But they made it possible for us to provide much better service to our customers, and to do many things we never thought possible. They make us more productive. That’s what the COO provides.
2. Several times the other night I heard people say, “we don’t need another bureaucrat” as if the department heads are all the same and interchangeable. Were you referring to the Chief of Police and the Building Official? Or the Park Superintendent and the Public Works Director? These positions are all required by charter and the city could not function without them. Since the COO will help these departments function more efficiently, wouldn’t we want one now as we enter tough financial times?
3. A lot has been made of the council’s supposed inability to ever fire the COO. First of all, his contract would almost certainly contain a “buyout” provision in case the relationship between the COO and the Mayor and council completely breaks down. But this is an extremely pessimistic attitude. A city manager is someone who wants to do good, and if he finds he is not able to do good in Bristol, he will probably very much want to move on to a place where he is appreciated.
4. In a big corporation, the CEO at some point in his career has usually held one or more of the jobs that he now supervises. To the best of my knowledge no Bristol mayor has ever been a Finance Director, a Personnel Director, or a Public Works Director. I don't think any Bristol mayor has ever worked in any other town, so they’ve never had any first hand knowledge of best management practices used elsewhere. They have no way of knowing the right departmental goals and objectives, and they have no benchmarks to evaluate the performance of the department head. All they know is "the way we've always done it".
5. If we vote tonight to keep this proposal in the Final Report, we are sending a strong message that the Bristol City Council takes the business of governing seriously. This is the message that we want to send to companies and families who are thinking about relocating to Bristol, and especially to developers who are right now deciding whether or not to propose investing their time and money in the Depot Square parcel.
6. But more important than my opinion is the opinion of the people of Bristol. I think this issue to too big to leave up to the seven people sitting on the City Council.
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