Watertown assembling charter commission for potential government changes

Feb 15, 2018

Watertown is forming a commission to review its city charter. The goal is to determine if the city would be better served by a different form of government.

Frustration over the years long battle between Watertown and the local firefighter union has boiled over recently. Two candidates who were critical of how the city has handled the issue unseated incumbents last fall. And the new council voted recently not to renew the contract of city manager Sharon Addison, who is calling the shots in the legal dispute.

The city manager is not an elected position. Councilor Cody Horbacz says there's a lot of public interest in changing that.

"I think it’s important for someone who has so much power in our government to be directly accountable to the people that they are working for," Horbacz said. 

A majority of the council is interested in absorbing the city manager's job into a full-time mayor position for a so-called "strong mayor" form of government similar to Syracuse, Oswego and Utica.

Mayor Joe Butler, who currently works part time, says it will likely be difficult to find someone willing to put aside their career for a job like that, and there are risks with putting that much power into one person's hands.

"I’m dead set against that," Butler said. "I think it - I don’t think it works for our city, however, the council collectively is open to explore that and the first step is to establish a commission."

The commission will be comprised of 9-15 Watertown residents. It could take a year for any recommendations to be made, which would ultimately be subject to a public referendum. 

But Butler says the commission will look at more than just the mayor's position. It will be charged with analyzing the whole charter to see if any changes need to be made, a long and potentially expensive undertaking.