Op-Ed: Rahm Emanuel and the Rye City charter

By Peter Lane
To paraphrase a comment attributed to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, “No good scandal should be wasted.” When you strip away the sardonic humor—that Rahm was always a scream at our fraternity “Goth” parties—this particular axiom makes a good deal of sense. After all, any scandal, Rahm’s word was actually “crisis,” is an indication that something went very wrong and good governance requires that we, the people, urge our leaders to make a course correction.

Now, while some “lame duck” members of the City Council may still cling to their views that the word “scandal” overstates and there was no failure of oversight on that body’s part, our recent election results strongly suggest that the electorate believes otherwise.

Those lopsided results of Nov. 5 indicate that the operative word should be in the plural, “scandals,” that the council, during most of these past years, with the notable exception of Mayor-elect Joe Sack, failed miserably in its oversight function and that such a course correction has now been mandated.

Assuming you were tuned into the campaign, you probably said to yourself, “you’ve got to be kidding me,” when you learned that Mayor-to-be Joe Sack, as a sitting councilman, actually had to file a Freedom of Information Law, FOIL, request to attempt to learn how much money went down the drain at the Rye Golf Club.

Our pal Rahm would surely have placed an HBO-worthy expletive in front of the word “kidding,” but I am writing for a family newspaper.

A sensible starting reform would mandate that, upon reasonable request, any member of the council should have access to the same information and documents that the mayor may receive from the city manager.

Now, I fully understand that Rye has adopted what we refer to as a city manager form of government—and comprehend that this form of government works well for our city and, thus, should not be fundamentally altered. That is, in addition, to its power to legislate, our council, comprised of the mayor and our six councilpersons, acts in a “board of directors” type capacity. These unpaid elected officials, who effectively donate their time, effort and energy, are charged with determining “all matter of policy” under the city charter. It falls to the city manager, whom the council appoints and may remove, to act as our city’s chief administrative officer. He or she appoints the department heads, save for the corporation counsel, who is appointed or retained directly by the council, directs and supervises their respective performances and then reports to the council as it “may require concerning the operations of city departments, offices and agencies subject to his direction and supervision.”

Further, the city manager is charged with making “such recommendations to the council concerning the affairs of the city—caution: Important operative words to follow—as he deems desirable.”

Now, even assuming the council really wanted to properly perform its oversight function, the Rye City charter does not enable it to do so.

Their past oversight failures, as the charter is presently written, consisted of Joe’s fellow members unwillingness to back his efforts to break through the Doug French condoned—perhaps even ordered—opaqueness and not holding the city manager’s feet to the fire to get accurate and complete information as the scandals began to surface.

Ironically, the charter does enable the council to swing into aggressive action after it’s too late. For example, it may examine any city employee “under oath” and may even while “making investigations into the affairs of the city and the conduct of any…department…thereof and for this purpose may subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, take testimony and require the production of evidence.” What it is specifically prohibited from doing, however—other than when making the type of “official inquiry” described above—is to “deal with the administrative departments…of the city….” This it may do “solely through the manager.” Its members are even prohibited from directly seeking “information from…any subordinate of the city manager.”

Folks, while I am not in favor of making changes that enable any council member to direct any city employee in the performance of his or her duties or to act in any manner that disrupts any city employee from conscientiously performing those duties; we should change the city charter so that the council as a body, at the initiation of at least one of its members, may meet with any department head in a controlled setting for the sole purpose of gathering information and viewing relevant documents.

I also believe that the council, not the city manager, should hire, and be able to fire, the police commissioner. That post is too sensitive and important to be filled by a city manager working through a search firm.

In this regard, we have to remember that the very best of city managers will have the tendency to shape his or her reports to the council—the body that hired and can fire that manager—in a self-serving way. And when we have a city manager that’s not among the best—even one who doesn’t withhold information from, or “stonewall”, any councilpersons—well, we are not only wasting a good scandal, we are actually begging for another one to happen.
Peter Lane retired as a Rye City Court judge and acting Westchester County Family Court judge at the end of 2009. He now is a political consultant, executive director of the Rye City Republican Committee and avid supporter of Mayor-elect Joe Sack.