The 1957 Adoption of the City Manager Form

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The 1957 Adoption of the City Manager Form

Of Government: A Brief Overview
Prepared by Larry Barnes, Batavia City Historian

April 28, 2008

Through a referendum vote in 1956, City residents voted to create a Charter Commission. At the same time, voters elected nine persons to the Commission. Several months later, the Commission presented its proposal to the public at a formal hearing. The proposal was slightly revised following the hearing; and then it went to a public vote a few weeks later in June of 1957. The revised proposal was supported by a majority of voters and a City Manager form of government went into effect in 1958. The following narrative elaborates on this sequence of events.

Prior to the changes introduced by the new Charter, Batavia had what some people term a “weak mayor” form of government. Listed below are several of the features as of 1957:

  1. A Mayor with veto power.

  2. A six-member City Council whose members were paid $800/year.

  3. Two-year terms of office.

  4. An elected City Judge.

  5. An elected City Attorney.

  6. A Justice of the Peace.

  7. A Water and Sewage Commission with control over water and sewer operations that included setting rates and making other decisions currently reserved to City Council.

  8. In other matters, City Council was more directly involved than today in day-to-day operation of the City including the appointment of individual police officers and fire fighters.

There appears to have been a general feeling that the City government’s operation needed improvement. Many people inside and outside the government supported creating a Charter Commission to revise the existing Charter.
On September 25, 1956, a public referendum was held on the following question: “Shall there be a Commission to draft a new City Charter?” The vote was 617 to 37 in favor of a Charter Commission with all six wards strongly supporting a Commission.
On the same date, persons casting a “yes” vote were directed to also vote for nine persons from a list of 15 nominees that had been created prior to the referendum. (These nominees were named by a committee that included some Council members, among others.) One of the nine persons so elected by the public early on withdrew from the Commission and was replaced by an individual selected by the remaining eight successful candidates. The final resulting nine Commissioners were the following individuals:
The Very Rev. John T. Sanborn

The Very Rev. Msgr. William C. Kirby

Mrs. Spencer Avery

J. D. LeSeur

Harry K. Lown

John V. Maloney

Joseph Marchese

Harry H. Martin

Ralph M. Olcott

After a period of several months, the Charter Commission presented its proposal to the public in a hearing held on April 15, 1957. To the surprise of many people, the Commission’s proposal was not the expected minor revision of the existing Charter, but instead a proposal for a whole new form of government—a City Manager structure. (The radical degree of change proposed by the Commission led some persons who initially supported the Commission’s efforts to withdraw their support and work for the proposal’s defeat.)
Major features of the proposed changes included the following:

  1. Replacement of the Mayor with an appointed City Manager who, in turn, would manage the day-to-day operation of the City government.

  2. Nine Council members rather than six, with three elected at-large.

  3. A City Council President, elected by the Council from among its at-large members, who would conduct Council meetings, sign documents, and perform ceremonial functions.

  4. Four-year terms of office with Ward Council members and At-large Council members elected in alternating election years.

  5. Appointment of both the City Attorney and City Judge.

  6. Assumption of City Historian responsibilities by the Clerk/Treasurer.

  7. Abolition of pay for Council members, although certain expenses would be reimbursed by the City.

  8. Broadening of the power of the Planning Board to include over-all City planning rather than just zoning matters.

  9. Abolition of the Water and Sewage Commission.

  10. Appointment of fire fighters by the Fire Chief and appointment of police officers by the Police Chief.

Forty persons attended the hearing, but most did not speak. Most of the commentary was directed at displeasure with the proposal to make the City Judge an appointed officer.

Following the hearing, the Charter Commission made some revisions to its proposed changes in City government The final draft of the proposed City Charter included these modifications:

  1. Returning the City Judgeship to an elected position as was currently the case.

  2. Returning the City Historian’s tasks to a volunteer City resident as was currently the case.

  3. Adding a Zoning Enforcement Officer.

The proposed City Charter generated a hotly contesed debate. The leaders in favor of the new Charter were all nine of the Commissioners. Opponents of the proposed Charter were led by three individuals in particular:
Mayor Herman D. Gabriel

Superintendent of Water and Sewage, Nelson M. Fuller

Fifth Ward Councilman, Samuel L. Barone
Arguments in Favor of the Proposed Charter
Proponents of the new Charter made several claims that included the following:

  1. The day-to-day operation of City government had become a complex job requiring specialized knowledge.

  2. The popularity sufficient to elect persons to office and their ability to properly administer the day-to-day affairs of government do not necessarily go hand in hand.

  3. The City would, therefore, benefit from a structure whereby elected Council members establish policy and a person trained in City government implements that policy.

  4. The proposed changes would put ultimate control of City government more clearly in the hands of Council than was the case with the structure in place in 1957.

  5. Expanding the size of Council by adding three at-large members would improve City-wide representation of the public.

  6. Electing Ward and At-large Council members in alternating elections would prevent the whole Council from being swept away all at once, thereby better insuring a degree of continuity in the government’s operation.

  7. Electing Ward and At-large Council members in alternating elections would simplify the election process and thus voters would be able to more readily concentrate on the election at hand.

  8. Both the City Republican Party and the City Democrat Party supported the proposed changes.

  9. Retaining political parties in the election process, as was the case under the proposed Charter, would be helpful in that the parties aid in identifying and encouraging residents who might run for Council.

  10. Council pay could be eliminated, as was proposed, because the Charter changes would reduce member’s day-to-day responsibilities.

  11. The vast majority of communities that had adopted the Manager form of government found it desirable and continued to use it.

Arguments Against the Proposed Charter
Opponents to the proposed Charter offered several arguments, as well. These included the following:

  1. The Charter Commissioners were naïve amateurs among the “socially elite” with little or no experience in government. Some had never even attended a Council meeting.

  2. The proposed changes would lead to a proliferation of department heads and other staff.

  3. The cost of government would increase significantly.

  4. Under the then current system, the public had a Mayor with veto power to protect them, but under the proposed Charter, there was no provision to prevent “screwy” or “mischievous” legislation.

  5. Abolition of the Water and Sewage Commission would put water operations “back in politics.”

  6. The City Manager would become more and more powerful and Council weaker with the latter eventually becoming a puppet legislative body serving not the residents, but the City Manager.

  7. The motivation for abolishing the Water and Sewage Commission allegedly was to introduce the fluoridation of water which two Commissioners favored and the Superintendent of Water strongly opposed.

  8. Election of At-large Council members would weaken representation of the Fifth and Sixth Wards.

  9. Adoption of the proposed Charter would open control of the City to professional politicians, and if they had their way, to the underworld as well.

On June 18, 1957, the proposed Charter went before the public. It passed by a vote of 1,935 to 1,545. However, there was a clear division between the north and south sides of the community. At the time, Main Street separated Wards 1, 2 and 3 (all on the north side, only) from Wards 4, 5, and 6 (all on the south side, only.) The vote by ward was as follows:
Ward 1 528 yes 185 no
Ward 2 340 yes 153 no
Ward 3 655 yes 247 no
Ward 4 203 yes 253 no
Ward 5 108 yes 455 no
Ward 6 101 yes 252 no
Newspaper accounts credited the wide margin of approval in Wards 1, 2, and 3 to efforts by City Republican Party committee members who worked to get voters to the polls who were known to favor the proposed Charter. The 4-to-1 ratio of defeat in Ward 5 was attributed to an organized opposition movement led by Samuel L. Barone. Southside opposition may also have been strengthened when, two weeks before the vote, the Labor Council went on record as opposing the proposed Charter.
The new Charter went into effect on January 1, 1958.

Another Charter Commission was appointed in 1964. It concluded that the City Manager form of government was working well. Never-the-less, it offered several suggestions for revisions. Perhaps the most significant was the recommendation that the Clerk/Treasurer be appointed by Council rather than the City Manager in order to provide a more effective check on the City Manager’s handling of money. It failed to pass.
In subsequent years, additional efforts have been made to modify the Charter. Among successful proposals have been the adoption of pay for Council members and a shift in the appointment of ZBA members from Council to the City Manager.

  1. “People Vote First in Referendum For or Against New Charter Unit: Those in Favor Then Pick Members,” The Daily News, 21 September 1956, page 1.

  2. “City Study Is Approved,” The Daily News, 26 September 1956, page 1.

  3. “New Charter Completed, Public Hearing Is Next,” The Daily News, 10 April 1957, page 1.

  4. “Official Endorses New Charter, Asserts Administrator Proposal Puts Control in Council’s Hands,” The Daily News, 12 April 1957, page 1.

  5. “Water Superintendent Levels Attack on Charter Proposals; Chairman Calls It Incorrect,” The Daily News, 13 April 1957, page 1.

  6. “Appointive City Judge Change Leading Target of Objections at Hearing on the New Charter,” The Daily News, 16 April 1957, page 1.

  7. “Charter Commission Drafting Final Details of Proposals; May File Thursday or Friday,” The Daily News, 17 April 1957, page 1.

  8. “Final Charter Draft Changes Judge Clause,” The Daily News, 18 April 1957, page 1.

  9. “New Charter Filed,” The Daily News, April 19, 1957, page 1.

  10. “Water Superintendent Asserts Fluoridation Is In Background of Proposed New City Charter,” The Daily News, 23 April 1957, page 1.

  11. “Mayor Says New Charter Dictator-Type Proposal,” The Daily News, 7 May 1957, page 1.

  12. “Group May Be Formed to Back Charter Commission Proposal in Face of City Hall Attacks, The Daily News, 9 May 1957, page 1

  13. “Fuller Fears Some ‘Evils’ From Charter,” The Daily News, 14 May 1957.

  14. “New Charter Copies Now Are Available; 100 At City Hall,” The Daily News, 16 May 1957, page 1.

  15. “Vote on Proposed New Charter Now Seen Certain for June 18: Action Scheduled Monday Night,” The Daily News, 17 May 1957, page 1.

  16. “Both Political Parties Endorse Proposed New Charter for City,” The Daily News, 18 May 1957, page 1.

  17. “Charter Chairman Notes Gratitude,” The Daily News, 20 May 1957, page 1.

  18. “Batavians Decide on June 18 Whether to Adopt the Charter Setting Up a New Government,” The Daily News, 21 May 1957 page 1.

  19. “Charter Front Sees Stirring of Opposition,” The Daily News, 5 June 1957, page 1.

  20. “Water Superintendent, Mayor Team in Public Appearances as Foes of Charter Revision,” The Daily News, 6 June 1957, page 1.

  21. “Labor Council Against Charter,” The Daily News, 7 June 1957, page 1.

  22. “Charter Commission Calls on Labor Council to Reconsider After Evaluation of ‘Facts’,” The Daily News, 12 June 1957, page 1.

  23. “Interest Runs High in Charter Ballot,” The Daily News, 15 June 1957, page 1.

  24. “Supreme Court Justice Urges Adoption of New City Charter; So Do Three Water Board Aides,” The Daily News, 17 June 1957, page 1.

  25. “Commission and Councilmen Issue 11th Hour Statements on Proposed Charter Questions,” The Daily News, 18 June 1957, page 1.

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