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Charter Review nearly done: Changes to replacement of vacancies and council committees contemplated

By Howard B. Owens

The Charter Review Commission has finished its review of the City of Batavia charter and will soon submit its revisions to the City Attorney for review, chairman John Roach says.

The big surprise, Roach said, is the need to clarify how a vacancy is filled on the City Council when a member resigns his or her seat for any reason. The vacancy is supposed to be filled according to party affiliation, but what that phrase means exactly wasn't defined.

Councilman Bill Cox brought the issue to the commission because he noted that while he's a Republican, he was elected on the Democratic and Conservative party lines. Roach said Cox would want to see the seat go to a Republican if he left office.

“There’s another feeling that the party that elected you should get to back fill your position, but it’s not really spelled out," Roach said. "So out of the clear blue we found ourselves (thinking) ‘OK, let’s define what affiliation means.’”

Roach's suggestion: Affiliation is defined by the party line that gave a candidate the most votes. In the case of Bill Cox, that would be Democrat.

Another big change to the charter, Roach said, would allow the City Council to operate through subcommittees, like the County Legislature. The charter won't require subcommittees, but will make the creation of a subcommittee system possible.

“If this goes through, these nine people all trying to be on TV, grandstanding for the public," Roach said, "That will all disappear. You’ll have your committees like other governmental agencies and there will be no grandstanding and things will get done much, much better.”

The proposed charter will also require a mandatory review of ward boundaries.

The wards haven't changed in 20 or 25 years and the number of voters in each ward are no longer evenly distributed. There aren't big differences, Roach said, but the problem will only get worse if not corrected. The revised charter would require boundary changes every 10 years after the national census.

As an example, Roach mentioned that wards 1 and 2 are different sizes, and the ward boundary runs down the middle of Vine Street. If both sides of Vine were moved into ward 1, then they would be even again.

“Everybody’s known it. It’s no real big thing," Roach said. "But after 25 or so years, it’s time for them to just adjust it. It’s politically unpopular. Nobody wants to say, ‘well, now you’re in my ward.’” By putting it in the charter, they can say, ‘those charter guys did it.’ It gives them cover for doing what they should have done all along."

Another surprise for Roach and the commission was that New York prevents the city from creating a public safety director position that combines police and fire duties, as once heavily discussed in the city, because cities the size of Batavia must have a police chief.

“When we first started this idea, we were not aware that there was a New York State law that required a police chief  for a small department like us," Roach said. "I was surprised how micromanaging that turned out to be. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was. I figured here’s a way to save some money. This makes sense. And boom, there’s a state law that stops us.”

The charter will expand from 19 sections to 20 so it can address the role of the city historian.

New York requires cities to have historians. Currently, it is an unpaid position and filled by Larry Barnes.

"It was never defined, what is his job, who appointed him, for how long, and what was it we wanted him to do," Roach said. "So in the charter we’ve now established how long can he be appointed for, who does the appointment and what is it we really want him to do. It’s a minor change to the charter and it costs no one any money."

While the role of the historian is now defined, the commission is proposing the elimination of the city engineer position. Now that the city's infrastructure is largely built out, there is no need for the job -- which has been vacant for some time anyway -- and so not filling the position will help the city save some money.

After the commission's next meeting, the proposed changes will be submitted to the City Attorney for review.  He will clean up any legal language and return it to the commission. Once that's done in June, a public hearing can be scheduled for July. The revisions can then be placed on the November ballot.

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