ITHACA, N.Y.—Tuesday’s election will provide a final decision on the referendum for a city manager position to be added within the City of Ithaca, a proposed restructuring of city government that has been in the works for over a year, gaining the support of most of Common Council along the way.

Introduced in 2021 by former Mayor Svante Myrick, the position would rearrange the mayorship into a more ceremonial role, though it would retain a voting position on the City of Ithaca Common Council.

The city manager position would be by appointment from the Common Council, likely in the form of a four- or five-year contracted position with an annual review process. The manager position would function as “CEO of the city,” and the ideal candidate would be someone with specialized experience heading complex organizations, overseeing department heads and developing budgets, to name a few of the duties.

Following the city manager introduction, a “Working Group for the City Government Structure” within the City Administration Council was created and began to strategize how the integration would occur.

“The bottom line is we need someone with experience and expertise in operating a complex organization like ours,” Alderperson Cynthia Brock said.

If the referendum is passed tomorrow, a search for a city manager would begin in 2023, with official installment likely in early 2024, if all goes according to plan.

“This reform would take the administrative responsibilities of the Mayor and vest them in a civil servant that reports to the entirety of Council, just like the relationship between the County Legislature and the County Administrator,” Alderperson Robert Cantelmo said.

Since the mayoral election between Acting Mayor Laura Lewis, Progressive Party candidate Katie Sims and Republican candidate Zach Winn is for a single-year term to finish out Myrick’s vacated seat, the elected candidate would serve in the traditional mayoral role through the 2023 city manager search.

At the end of 2023, another mayoral election (for the updated job description) would take place ahead of the official appointment of the 2024 city manager coronation. The creation of the position is considered budget-neutral as it will not impact taxpayers—the salary taken up by the chief of staff would be transferred to the city manager.

Sims and Winn have both come out in opposition of the city manager creation, saying that it reduces the influence of voters on the direction of the city government. Most centrally, Sims objects to an appointed official having control over the annual draft budget, as opposed to an elected official directly accountable to voters, while Winn similarly said he dislikes the concentration of power that the city manager role could represent.

Logistically, the new structure would integrate the mayor into the Common Council, and law-passing procedures would change slightly, in the sense that public hearings would be required ahead of approval. The city manager position would also replace the current chief of staff position that was left vacant earlier this fall when Faith Vavra announced that she will be stepping out of the role, though she is still serving in the position for the next few weeks.

Following that departure announcement, Lewis said that her search would be focused on chief of staff candidates also suited to the city manager position, should the referendum pass.

Under the new structure proposed in the referendum, duties currently completed by the mayor would be split between the mayor and city manager. More can be read on the split of specific tasks here.

In August of this year, Lewis said that her time as mayor has led her to support the creation of the city manager position, which she believes would make the city’s government run more efficiently and increase its capacity to be more responsive to the community.

Lewis originally voted for the creation of the city manager position, and in August of this year, she said that her time as mayor has led her to support the creation of the city manager position, which she believes would make the city’s government run more efficiently and increase its capacity to be more responsive to the community.

Eight Common Councilmembers provided statements in support of the referendum as well as Sims and Winn, though they both opposed the measure. All statements can be found here.

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Alderperson Patrick Mehler said “I support the City Manager referendum because it will bring a less partisan and exceptionally qualified individual to manage city affairs. Under a city manager who is not seeking to court voters, but rather acts in the best interest of the city, I am confident that city services will run more efficiently while the mayor can redirect their energy to implementing sound policies. Further, this budget-neutral change will more equitably compensate people for the work, both on the mayor’s end and on the city manager’s end without the need for a mayor’s chief of staff.”

Alderperson George McGonigal said “Yes, I support a yes vote on the City Manager referendum. My reasons are that the County uses a very similar organizational model that works very well. I would hope that having a City Manager will also make having an Assistant Manager (or Assistant Chief of Staff) redundant and unnecessary. The City Manager should be able to oversee all City departments, including reimagined Public Safety / IPD. Also, I trust former Donna Fleming’s judgment. Donna did a ton of research around this issue when she was on Common Council and she strongly favors changing to a city manager model.”

Alderperson Ducson Nguyen said “I strongly support the city manager referendum. One need only look to our colleagues at the county to see the efficiency benefits of a dedicated management professional to run day-to-day operations, allowing the legislative head (in our case the mayor) more time to address constituent needs, develop policy, and advocate for the city. The duties of the mayor are overwhelming and someone newly elected to the position has little time and help to learn how to manage the intricacies of a nearly 500-person organization. It’s no wonder then that every City of Ithaca mayor over the past 20 years supports a city manager. Research shows council-manager governments enact more innovative policy solutions and reduce friction at City Hall. It’s the most common form of local government in the United States. There are so many changes constituents ask me for that are extremely difficult or very slow to achieve because nobody at City Hall is accountable to Common Council to follow through on our policy prescriptions. Voting YES to the budget-neutral referendum to create a city manager will improve the responsiveness of city government for us all.”

Alderperson Rob Gearhart said “I support the City Manager referendum and I encourage Ithacans to vote YES! The City of Ithaca is complex, with 400+ employees in 11 departments. As the chief administrative officer, our Mayor oversees department heads and others, while managing an $80+ million budget. We’ve been fortunate to have dedicated mayors take on this responsibility without being fully compensated for that workload. A City Manager will take over those administrative duties and bring the professional experience needed to run a complex municipal organization – and they are often certified in that work by groups like the ICMA (International City/County Management Association). The City has tremendously dedicated and experienced staff. Our citizens deserve administrative leadership not only committed to being good stewards of our limited resources, but prepared with the experience and professionalism expected to manage those resources effectively. Our City Manager will report to Common Council who will have oversight of the [City Manager] work. Our version of the Council-Manager model maintains an elected Mayor who oversees Common Council meetings and becomes a full voting member. Beginning in January 2024, our new model of Mayor becomes the chief elected official in the City of Ithaca, focused on legislative agendas and working closely with the City Manager to support those. It’s time to make this important change!”

Alderperson Cynthia Brock said “The City is a complex organizational structure responsible for providing essential services to the community. From the water you drink to the roads you drive on; from the programs, parks, and festivals you enjoy to the people you call when you need help; from the network of hidden infrastructure that keeps water, sewer and rainwater flowing; from the buildings that represent our past to the vision that shapes our future; protecting and enhancing our community’s health, safety and welfare are our core responsibilities. […] The Mayor and Council will continue to respond to our changing needs through zoning, policies and evolving services, and the City Manager will oversee our departments to provide the long-term stability and professionalism needed for a growing, modern City. Our previous structure worked well but we have outgrown it. We need a City Manager.”

Alderperson Robert Cantelmo said that “I am voting Yes on the City Manager referendum for three reasons. First, this reform would take the administrative responsibilities of the Mayor and vest them in a civil servant that reports to the entirety of Council, just like the relationship between the County Legislature and the County Administrator. This allows us to select a mayor on the basis of their vision for our community, without placing the burden of administration on a part-time individual who may not have experience managing a complex organization. Second, the City Manager reform will likely improve accountability as it will reduce the informational asymmetries that exist between local legislative and executive branches. All of the Council will oversee the City Manager, whereas in our current model the Chief of Staff only reports to the Mayor. Policy decisions will still be made by our elected leaders who will have oversight over implementation, but will also enjoy more democratized access to information. Third, this is a common model adopted by small- and mid-sized cities because of its efficiency. It professionalizes the management of the city and dedicates full-time resources to handling the bureaucratic, administrative, and operational responsibilities of local government. I urge my friends and neighbors to flip their ballot over and vote YES on Proposal Two; City Proposition One.”

Acting Mayor Laura Lewis said that “Another key feature is [the city manager position] will allow the mayor to focus on policy-related matters and to be the public face of the city and to work closely with the city manager. The city manager would develop a budget, department heads would report to the city manager. Currently, the chief of staff does not have true authority, the chief of staff has authority as delegated by the mayor. Another key benefit, as I see it, of the city manager model, is that the mayor would have a vote on Common Council. Currently, the mayor does not vote on Common Council unless there’s a tie. We’re in a unique position because as acting mayor, I still have my alderperson seat, so I have my vote as alderperson. What is unique is this year, with the former mayor’s resignation, the acting mayor role became more pronounced. So I strongly support the city manager role because I see it as creating more effective and efficient city government that will be more responsive to taxpayers.”

Alderperson Phoebe Brown said that she did not have a response and that she is “still trying to understand the need.”

Alderperson Jorge DeFendini tested positive for COVID last week and did not have a statement ready.

Alderperson Jeffrey Barken released a statement saying that “On the ballot is a referendum provision establishing a City Manager. We should embrace the dedication my predecessor on Council, Donna Fleming has shown helping to draft and promote this legislation. We are fortunate to know such a judicious public servant, whose thoughtful leadership has provided this failsafe. Here is the remedy to a workload that buries executives and creates unnecessary strife. We have the chance to balance symbols with function and to reassert pragmatic principles that serve us all. Passage of the City Manager Referendum is the first step toward renewal and resilience.”

Progressive Party Mayoral Candidate Katie Sims “I’m looking forward to seeing how voters decide on the City Manager referendum. Both sides have trade-offs. I like that the legislature would have much more input in the functioning of City Hall. However, I’m concerned about voters’ losing the opportunity to decide who creates the draft budget. Drafting the budget is a political task that has a tremendous influence on the outcome of the budget — regardless of the amendment process that brings in Common Council, the draft budget is the City’s most clear documentation of its priorities, and it’s not honest to cast that prioritization as a purely administrative task. Ultimately, I’ve been planning to vote no because I want to preserve the voters’ direct choice, and because the job requirements filter for business leaders instead of people who deeply understand the needs of residents. Either way, structural changes are ultimately less impactful than having leadership that makes the people’s priorities their own priorities, not a representative of the city’s elite crafting an austerity budget.” 

Republican Mayoral Candidate Zach Winn “I am opposed to the referendum creating a City Manager. I spoke against the measure when it was first introduced at Common Council. The proposal is the result of a rushed process that did not allow the public adequate time to consider such a major change in the structure of city government. The eagerness with which the measure is being promoted is highly suspicious, with former mayor Myrick’s People For The American Way engaging in a PR campaign on behalf of the referendum. Implementing a City Manager will concentrate authority into even fewer hands, further removing the executive from accountability to the public. The decision making process for selecting a City Manager will be subject to the biases of the members of Common Council, including the voting bloc known as the ‘Solidarity Slate.’ One of the supposed benefits of a city manager is the administration of city business is removed from politics. I believe the result will be the appointment of an individual for explicitly political reasons. The City Manager proposal is undemocratic. It changes the city charter from a Strong Mayor system to a Weak Mayor system. This type of “council-manager government” system undermines separation of powers. Vote No.”

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn