Rewriting the City Charter: Towards fixing our broken government

BRO Submission By Matthew Ricchiazzi:
 
I crave good government.  I yearn for competent elected officials.  I hope that the devastating leadership void in our region that has left our governmental apparatus impotent, unwieldy, and poorly configured will cease sooner rather than later.
 
Our government–the City of Buffalo–has been an ineffectual and complacent failure for at least the last three decades.  Enough is enough, and few would argue that an overhaul is long overdue.  But like every other progressive effort that this City undergoes, the vision will only come from the bottom up.

Common-Chart-2.jpg
 
Perhaps I’m the only one who finds a topic like “municipal restructuring” worthy of conversation, but I knew that the readers of BRO would have some valuable insight and robust opinion.
 
I’m tired of a City government that exacerbates rather than solves problems.  I’m sick of elected leaders who don’t understand where we’re going, how to get us there–and as a result make horrible decisions, the consequences of which the entire region endures.
 
This is a starting point for discussion, and I hope that it might evolve into valuable guidance to a Common Council, from whom we’re all asking for change:
 
A.   Downsize the Common Council, centralize staff, and eliminate all non-Council elected offices
 
Downsize the Council.  It is hard enough to find a large enough pool of qualified Council candidates willing to run for office with nine seats.  With fewer seats, we might be able to ease the narrow and parochial thinking (or with at-large seats, but that seems a step too controversial).  Five seats seems ideal.  Seven seats seems doable.
 
Centralize Staff.  Only with centralized staff, under the direction of a Council Chairman will we be able to stop the political infighting and start cooperatively speaking with one voice.  Legislative affairs, lobbying, and communications should be centralized under the control of the Council Chairman’s office.
 
Eliminate non-Council elected positions.  Over the last several decades, the Mayor’s Office has been more detrimental than helpful to our City.  It’s too hard to get incompetent machine bosses and their patronage systems out of office, even under the most corrupt of circumstances.
 
B.   Restructure and professionalize core governance, policy and decision making functions 
 
Professionalize core functions.  We need to transform the civil service bureaucracy into a professional organization.  Rewarding time of tenure is obsolete.  Instead, we’ll reward skill sets, credentials, and an ability to innovate.  We need leaders, not just unthinking cogs in our governmental machinations.
 
Insolate from politics.  I shouldn’t have to crave for good government–it should be a given.  We need to reduce the political influences.  Eliminating the Mayor’s office will help.  A strong Council that has the ability to hire or fire strong Commissioners would be advantageous.
 
C.   Privatize labor-intensive service delivery functions, introduce participatory oversight systems
 
Privatize labor intensive service delivery.  The City’s current cost structure (existing City Charter and other regulations, labor costs, etc) of service delivery is very high.  I want to provide services at the lowest cost possible, which requires greater operational flexibility in labor contracts and the City Charter.  Let’s privatize labor intensive service delivery functions to private entities that do not have the same contractual obligations, and can better improve efficiencies through the development and application of automation technologies, more flexible organizational structure, and the market mechanism controlling costs.
 
D.   Capitalize public-private venture partnerships to cultivate a green economy
 
Public-private venture partnerships.  A venture capital fund has the ability to aggressive capitalize start up firms in emerging high-growth industries.  We have an enormous opportunity to cultivate entire industries, like energy production and energy efficiency.

About the author  ⁄ buffalorising

22 comments
ReginaldQMerriweatherIV
ReginaldQMerriweatherIV

Thanks for the clarification...

An affordable housing revolver sounded like what you use to put vacant homes out of their misery...

Matthew.Ricchiazzi
Matthew.Ricchiazzi

I was trying to abbreviate an "Affordable Housing Revolving Credit Facility" (sorry for the lack of clarity). Right now affordable housing non-profits typically operate off of grant funding to construct a set number of units. This has been too incremental and not sufficiently market-based an approach. A revolving credit line that the City could extend to affordable housing developers at the rate of inflation (essentially offering free money for property management firms to expand their portfolio of affordable units) would have a number of advantageous incentives. Developers would bring new affordable units to our aging housing stock even though there are minimal margins in that segment of the market. Developers would also have the incentive to scale down the construction cost of their units to align rents to the costs of financing (which means we'd get more units for our affordable housing dollars than through a grant program, mainly by producing more compact units). We need to transition away from grant programs towards a revolver (in my opinion) because grant programs don't have implicit performance incentives.

whatever
whatever

Once in a while a non-Dem candidate might win, but it would be very rare.

Dem voters outnumber R's in Buffalo by more than 7:1. Even if city R's and unaffiliated voters are combined, they're still outumbered by D's at more than 3:1. Those are huge numbers to ever overcome.

Much more often, at-large council elections would work in favor of Buffalo's two strong voting blocks: one in South Buffalo and one on the East Side. They'd elect a lot more council members than other parts of the city that are more transient, more diverse, and less full of political machines.

SB and the ES each support their own candidates with very high percents, 80-90% sometimes and with high turnout. Other parts of the city usually wouldn't come close.

Matthew.Ricchiazzi
Matthew.Ricchiazzi

Perhaps it's a naive hope that someone on the Common Council will recognize the direction that we need to go, and will step up to fill the leadership void. We need to stop thinking that just because a job is unionized means that it will exist forever. It won't. We need a professional organization that can adapt to emerging needs, not a jobs program that shackles our economy.

Black Rock Lifer
Black Rock Lifer

That could happen but the larger pool of contenders would offset the likelihood of one group dominating. I think if voters were given more choice there would be better turnout and more confidence in the process.

Jesse
Jesse

Sounds pretty good. And dreamy.

But really, what in the 9 hells makes anyone think any single bit of this has any hope of coming to fruition?

How would any of the currently entrenched interests allow any of this? Can you spell lawsuit? I knew you could...

Pegger
Pegger

It's all so entrenched.

Matthew.Ricchiazzi
Matthew.Ricchiazzi

Grassroots certainly dominates the Democratic Primary, but I think at-large voting would make the general election relevant again. In a general election, the outcome is much less certain. I was thinking that it would make it more difficult for the Democratic Party to maintain its Council monopoly, as an at-large system would be more friendly to second and third parties.

Matthew.Ricchiazzi
Matthew.Ricchiazzi

Yeah, I completely agree that we need to do something really significant to our state's election law -- which is at the root of much Albany's dysfunction. I like the idea of runoff voting.

Matthew.Ricchiazzi
Matthew.Ricchiazzi

I agree that we would have to have some investigative audit function embedded into the procurement and contracting process to better protect against corruption. You make a good point about how privatized operations will further corrupt our elections/campaign contribution system (which I would argue is in much of need of reform -- like how the campaign contribution limit is $65,000). I think most would agree that no one person should be able to donate in excess of a couple thousand dollars to one candidate. (I wonder what latitude the Common Council has within the framework of state law to adopt municipal election reforms?).

I don't expect that the majority of the labor cost savings will stem from a wage differential. Most of the savings will come from:

1) a more flexible organizational structure (devoid of the operational constraints codified in the City Charter, union contracts, or state law) will allow managers to continuously allocate and reallocate organizational processes and job responsibilities to more quickly and effectively allocate resources across needs and capacity constraints... that process innovation leads to greater process efficiency, reducing demand for labor hours;

2) more innovative compensation systems (being able to operate beyond the constraints of union contracts) can be designed to ensure that the incentives and rewards for employees are congruent with -- and sufficient to -- produce the results that we demand... better incentive/reward systems will attract higher caliber (aka more productive) employees whose interests are appropriately aligned;

3) the market mechanism that controls costs is non existent right now for the City's operations... bureaucrats gain status relative to how large a share of a budget and other resources they control, and therefore have an implicit incentive to avoid implementing automation technologies or more efficient procedures that would reduce labor costs and improve organizational efficiency because they'd likely loose that budget allocation, and they'd rather keep that patronage staffer... there is a disincentive to innovate and reduce costs that we can not reverse without the interests of a profit-driven manager

whatever
whatever

If the council was elected at-large as Really? and you suggest, supporters of Byron Brown and Grassroots would often have a good chance of electing a majority. Geographic districts make that much more difficult.

For example, I doubt there'd always be a council member from the northwest portion of Buffalo with an at-large system. Other parts of the city (East Side, S. Buffalo) have much more united voting blocks and they'd dominate the results.

Matthew.Ricchiazzi
Matthew.Ricchiazzi

I agree. I think the fact that the Common Council is elected from a voting district really embeds a turf-mentality into the legislative body, where each Council member sees themselves as fighting against other districts for resources in a zero sum game. We end up with a Council that flounders in the politicking rather than taking a longer term, big picture, policy-oriented approach to their role. We have to stop fighting with ourselves and start articulating a collaborative direction together.

Black Rock Lifer
Black Rock Lifer

I think your right about the councilman focusing too much on the minutiae. As Really? suggests all members should be at large with the advantage of looking at the big picture. I think this would also attract more and better qualified candidates. A process for addressing constituent complaints would still be necessary but the department heads should be ultimately responsible for their area.

Not so sure about your support for privatization, again with good department heads the city should be able to manage as well as any business. Privatization has not always proven to be more efficent and I think is just used to avoid the hard work of reforming our political structure.

bradman
bradman

I really like the level of thought and detail put into a much needed overhaul of local government. There's certainly room for tweaking and possible improvements (I like the city manager idea to go along with the notion of a professional government).

Now let's see if you can work on rewriting the state constitution so we can REALLY start getting somewhere! :oD

dcoffee
dcoffee

hmmm.. seems like the big idea in your reorganization scheme is to turn government into more of a meritocracy, where the best people fill the positions, instead of people with the best connections.

I share the same goal, here's an idea that may be an addition to this plan. Change the way we run elections. Often politicians become entrenched regardless of how well they do their job. I think there's two reasons for that, voters aren't really well informed of what is happening in city hall, and money is so important to winning elections. Incumbents get the cash, and they bombard the public with slanted information.

What if we standardized our elections system to allow more candidates to participate on equal footing? Maybe publicly financed campaigns, and/or Instant Runoff Voting?

Thinking about it from the elected officials perspective, they spend so much time fundraising, that governing becomes their second priority. The campaign finance issue is actually on the Federal radar with the Fair Elections Now Act http://www.fairelectionsnow.org/ Just throwing that out there, Cause long term, I think that's the best thing we could do to fix government. No matter the issue, if we had more honest people who weren't so concerned about getting campaign cash, we'd get better decisions.

Anyway, I do like your idea of eliminating most of the non-council elected offices, many of the lower office seats are usually uncontested anyway. And I like the citizens advisory boards for service departments too.

grad94
grad94

thanx for the graphics, matthew, they really help the reader follow your argument.

paul is right about entrusting the hiring of commissioners to common council.

privatizing services is no protection against corruption, which is chronic wherever private entities bid on public business. the more they profit from public work, they more they donate to campaigns and the more government does their bidding instead of ours.

plus, privatizing services doesn't result in meaningful savings to the taxpayer if a full time civil service job with a middle class salary and benefits is transformed into -say- two part time low wage no benefit jobs in the private sector. now that worker has no disposable income to spend in the local economy, can't afford a house, and may need public housing, food stamps, or medicaid to get by. in other words, pay me now or pay me later.

not -me- literally, i'm not a civil servant.

MRodgers
MRodgers

Paul, you never cease to amaze me - common sense principles - getting us back to the basics of good governing.

Paul Wolf
Paul Wolf

I appreciate the thought and effort you have put into developing your idea for a new model of city government.

I have no problem with down sizing the Common Council to 5 or 7 members as you suggest and centralizing the staff. Council members should be spending their time on creating and monitoring policies. Council Members spend way too much addressing constituent complaints, instead of focusing on big picture policy issues.

The thought of Council Members directly hiring and overseeing city commissioners scares the hell out of me. I much prefer a professional City Manager, with the power to hire and fire with oversight by the Council. Most elected officials do not have the experience or skill set to manage their own offices effectively, let alone something as large as a city department.

I am all for injecting competition into how city services are delivered through privitization efforts. Government should not be involved in competing with private parking vendors, substance abuse programs, economic development programs etc.

The politics of pay to play and patronage hiring has to end for the city to move forward. A professional City Manager with the authority to hire and fire based on qualifications alone would be a huge step forward for Buffalo

Paul Wolf

www.paulwolfideas.com

Really?
Really?

I think making the common council, regardless of size, a city wide election would do a lot of good.

People fall for the "my guy" syndrome. In that they feel the common council stinks but "their guy" really cares. He funding this project or focused on that issue.

Say the CC was 9 seats and every seat was an at large, you would not see a lot of the challenges.

scottw
scottw

There's some validity in that Flyguy, however [we] are more times than none voting for promises and ideals that are all too often not delivered in the end. Either because they are promises that can just not be filled because of the tangled mess of do nothings that inhabit city offices OR they just don't deliver out of apathy. True City Gov. needs an overhaul but the rest of that building needs a good cleaning out on the civic level as well.

Downsizing city council would be a good start Matthew.

flyguy
flyguy

The voting public and interests behind that voting public are just as much to blame. Its a public that complains about the status quo and the downfall of Buffalo but yet somehow repeatedly votes for more of the same. The blame certainly doesn't reside only in City Hall, thats just an easy scapegoat because everyone loves to b**ch about government. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, thats the Buffalo of the past 40 years.

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