Amsterdam

Amsterdam officials mull next steps after city controller proposition passes

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AMSTERDAM — Voter approval of a proposition to convert the city controller from an elected office to an appointed position still has Amsterdam officials mulling options to fill the existing vacancy.

The ballot proposition was passed by Amsterdam voters 1,975 to 1,800 on Tuesday, according to unofficial election results reported by the Montgomery County Board of Elections.

“That’s critical to the financial security of the city,” Mayor Michael Cinquanti said Wednesday. “I appreciate everyone that voted.”

The proposition will amend the city charter to make the controller a four-year appointed position running concurrent with the mayor’s term of office. The controller will be under the mayor’s supervision similar to other department heads.

The measure will also establish qualifications limiting appointments to individuals who are certified public accountants; hold a four year degree and have at least three years’ experience in accounting; or with at least eight years’ experience in public accounting or equivalent financial management experience.

“It was definitely one of my priorities,” Cinquanti said. “Making the position of city controller one that required a qualified candidate to fill it. We’ve got that now. No one without qualifications in the future can serve this office.”

Previously, any resident of the city 18 or older could run for the four-year elected term of controller. There were no requirements for accounting experience or education at any level. Not even a high school diploma was needed. The controller as an elected official was not subject to any oversight from other city officials.

Cinquanti pursued the charter amendment to prevent a recurrence of past mismanagement and irregular accounting practices by former office holders that he believes contributed to the city’s massive accumulated budget deficit that rose as high as $8 million after it was discovered in 2015-16. The debt had been knocked down to about $1.1 million by the 2020-21 fiscal year.

While he celebrated the affirmative decision, Cinqaunti acknowledged it has not resolved the uncertainty surrounding how to address the vacancy created by the resignation of former City Controller Matthew Agresta in August. The charter change will not take effect until Agresta’s elected four-year term expires on Jan. 1, 2024.

“I’m going to sit with the Common Council and corporation counsel and discuss how we move forward,” Cinquanti said. “Can we do something to start looking and hiring now?”

Officials had pointed to the looming referendum and the ambiguity it cast over the position as an impediment to finding qualified candidates interested in accepting appointment to Agresta’s remaining unexpired term of office. His departure was four days past the cutoff to hold a special election this fall to fill the vacancy.

City leaders indicated the decision on the proposition would set the direction for finally filling the open seat, but 1st Ward Alderwoman Kelly Quist-Demars acknowledged that officials haven’t decided yet what to do next.

“It’s something we haven’t really discussed, because we have been waiting for the answer on this,” Quist-Demars said. “Now that we’ve got the results, we have to reconvene and see where everybody stands on the next steps.”

The city charter regulations for filling the vacancy as an elected office will remain in effect until 2024. The Common Council since September has repeatedly tabled a local law that would amend the city charter to remove some of the constraints to making an appointment.

The law would remove a requirement that the post be filled by an individual of the same political party affiliation as the outgoing controller and add language allowing the open seat to be filled more than 30 days after the previous office holder vacates their post.

The local law should be adopted now to allow the council to field qualified candidates capable of carrying on in the position when it officially converts to a mayoral appointment, according to Quist-Demars.

“We should put someone in there that is a strong candidate for our city that any mayor would want to keep on, that’s the goal,” Quist-Demars said. She supported the ballot proposition to instill stability in the controller’s position to help attract experienced professionals to aid the city’s long term financial security.

Although he opposed the proposition, Deputy Mayor and 5th Ward Alderman James Martuscello agreed that the council should move forward and adopt the local law at the next meeting to advance towards appointing someone to the vacancy.

“I will support it, because that’s what the people voted for,” Martuscello said. “When you’re an alderman, it’s not what you want, it’s what the people want.”

Still, Quist-Demars and Martuscello acknowledged the controller’s $65,000 annual salary could continue to pose a challenge to attracting skilled professionals to the open seat. Since the salary is still attached to the elected office, it cannot be adjusted mid-term.

While trying to find candidates for the position previously, Martuscello said that he approached two city-based accountants who weren’t interested due to the low pay. He believes the salary for the appointed position will have to be set above $100,000 a year based on those interactions.

“Right from the beginning we tried to find somebody and nobody stepped forward,” Martuscello said. “Next budget year we have to sit down to establish the salary of the controller coming in.”

Furthermore, Martuscello said Deputy Controller Cassandra Kinowski turned down the city’s offer to continue in her position and fully assume the duties of the controller for $99,250. Officials rejected her counter offer to take on both roles for $108,000, according to Martuscello, who said he was the sole supporter of her request during discussions among council members.

Martuscello suggested the city should ask Kim Brumley to accept the appointment to the controller’s one-year unexpired term. She was hired by the city in October to provide financial consulting services part-time for a $900 weekly stipend until a new controller is hired.

“She is doing the same exact thing now as a consultant,” said Martuscello of Brumley, who previously served as city controller from 1993 to 2005.

The shift would provide Brumley authority she lacks as a consultant, according to Martuscello, who said Kinowski as deputy controller under the city charter is technically in charge of the controller’s office until a new leader is appointed.

However, Cinquanti and Brumley have described her consulting role as a stopgap measure to help fill the void in the controller’s office temporarily.

“She did it more as a favor to the city than as a personal want,” Cinquanti said. “She’s agreed that she’s here until the solution is in place.”

Moreover, Cinquanti and Quist-Demars agree that the city should begin the careful process of seeking individuals interested in filling the role permanently and not for just the next year.

“I’m thinking the search starts for the ideal candidate that would be a benefit to the city that meets those requirements and can start working with the entire team and with the city,” Quist-Demars said. “We would need to go out and find the right person.”

The first controller to be appointed under the approved charter amendment will be made by the city’s next elected mayor. Cinquanti acknowledged that he has not yet decided whether he will seek reelection next year.

“We have a very important responsibility to go out and find the very best candidate to manage the city of Amsterdam’s finances,” Cinquanti said. “No matter what happens we are in a good position moving forward, but I want to get in a permanently good position.”

Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.

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