Whether the city needs a chief operating officer or not comes down, in the end, to something akin to faith.
Those who support the measure on Tuesday’s ballot say that putting an experienced professional in charge of city administration will lead to savings that far exceed the position’s likely cost.
Those who opposed the charter change say that adding a post that’s likely to cost taxpayers about $250,000 a year – for salary, benefits and sundry – doesn’t make sense in the middle of a recession unless there is hard proof that it will produce savings.
Since only time can answer the doubts with proof that one side or the other is correct, it is virtually impossible to prove that adding a kind of city manager-lite to the structure of city government would have much impact. But voters still have to make a choice on the controversial plan Tuesday.
The Choose COO organization pushing the idea – headed by businessman Craig Yarde and former Republican mayoral contender Ken Johnson – said Friday that Bristol’s “present system is laden with cronyism and lacking accountability” and called on taxpayers to “get the professional leadership we need” by voting in favor of the proposal.
But Mayor Art Ward, a critic, called the move a “last minute push by a small group of political proponents who want you to believe that all of the ills of our community will be resolved by the presence of yet another level of government, a COO.”
Though the plan got the unanimous backing of the bipartisan Charter Revision Commission, the Republican Town Committee and the Greater Bristol Chamber of Commerce, city councilors gunned down the proposal in June on a 5-2 vote.
The losing side opted to fight on, gathering more than 3,600 signatures from registered voters in order to give the public the last word on whether to make the change or not. That’s why it is on the ballot Tuesday as Question #5.
“It looks like a classic fight,” Yarde said. “The taxpayers who are looking for more efficiency and cost containment in our city government and the union looking not to change the status quo.”
The Choose COO group has put up large signs in town describing the vote as one between taxpayers and unions, which critics say is unfair given that most city workers live in town and are both union members and taxpayers.
Still, a letter sent out to members by Local 2267 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees warned them that a chief operating officer “will not prove to be a friend of the unions.”
Officials who oppose the charter change say that the city runs pretty well now and there’s no need to add a vague new position that might muck things up.
City Councilor Mike Rimcoski, a Republican, called the proposed chief operating officer “another layer of bureaucracy” that would cost taxpayers too much.
City Councilor Frank Nicastro, a former Democratic mayor, 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 controland need supervision is “garbage.”
Critics argue that Bristol has managed to create a healthy rainy day fund, fully fund its pension trusts and provide a solid school system without socking taxpayers over the years. They say there’s nothing a COO add.
But city Councilor Ken Cockayne, a freshman Republican who favors the change, said, “People seem to be living in the past. We have to be looking to the future.”
Democratic city Councilor Craig Minor, who favors the position, said that asking how much the new slot will cost is fair.
“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,” he said. “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,” Minor said.
Yarde said a COO “will help in the continuity needed to maintain a long term vision for this community,” which he said is needed because mayor and councilors can change every two years.
Yarde said that he’s also convinced the position will bring savings for taxpayers.
“Believe me, there are millions of dollars of low hanging fruit that a COO can pick without sacrificing service or jobs,” Yarde said.
“We’re not the little town of Bristol anymore. It’s time for professional oversight,” Johnson said.
There are other questions on the ballot as well, including a controversial state referendum about whether to hold a constitutional convention to consider rewriting Connecticut government’s blueprint.
There are also four non-controversial charter issues in Bristol that haven’t received any opposition, including a move to extend the registrars’ terms to four years.
The polls are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
What would a COO do?
The COO would supervise and evaluate the city’s 21 department heads, make recommendations to the mayor and the City Council, and ‘provide leadership and direction’ to city government on a range of issues, including the budget, technology initiatives and customer service.
Who hires the COO?
A hiring committee consisting of the mayor, one city councilor, the Board of Finance chairman and two citizens, one from each party, would pick the COO.
What qualifications would a COO have?
To apply, a COO prospect would need at least a bachelor’s degree in public administration or a related field and have at least four years of experience as a city manager or its equivalent.
At least four city councilors said the standards ought to be higher.
How would a COO lose his job?
At any time, a vote by two-thirds of the City Council would end a COO’s term, which means that five of the seven council votes would be needed to fire someone in the job.
Contact Steve Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org