A special meeting set by Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan never happened Wednesday — in part because Madigan wasn’t there.
The meeting was to consider two budget amendments that would take money from the city’s reserves to allow the Charter Review Commission to draft and present a new charter with a new form of government to the voters. One amendment would provide $46,000 for the commission’s operational expenses for 2017 and the other would allocate $37,000 for a special election set for May 30.
The proposed special election and the new form, council-manager, have drawn criticism from council members, whose jobs would be eliminated in 2019 should a new form be approved to replace the current commission form, which has been in place for more than 100 years.
Because Accounts Commissioner John Franck and Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco were also not present, the 4 p.m. meeting did not have the three council members needed for a quorum and could not be called to order.
“It’s a shame, because we had so many Charter Commission members come out for the items on the agenda, but we will not be having an official meeting,” said Mayor Joanne Yepsen, who was joined at the meeting by Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen and a roomful of residents, including seven commission members.
Madigan released a statement to members of the media at 4:32 p.m. saying she asked the mayor to cancel the meeting after learning that Franck could not attend.
“Apparently he's got an audit going on across the street which he didn't anticipate,” Yepsen explained.
Madigan said she wanted all five council members present to “weigh in and vote on these important budget amendments.”
“I personally called the mayor’s office and emailed the mayor’s office asking for the special meeting to be canceled,” she said, adding that she expected that Yepsen did not officially cancel the meeting “as was expected and requested of her to do.”
“It is unfortunate that this occurred and that many of you came to this meeting as notice should have gone out informing you there would be no meeting,” she said.
Yepsen said she emailed council members saying it was critical that the meeting take place after receiving a text message from Franck telling her he couldn’t be there. She said she went forward with the meeting hoping for a quorum and that it’s not unusual to hold meetings with only four commissioners present. Yepsen said she received an email from Scirocco letting her know he wouldn’t be attending without giving a reason.
“I really don't remember this ever happening since I've become mayor,” she said. “All I can say is it is very difficult to move city business forward, and now we still have a charter commission with no allocated official funding.”
After the meeting didn’t come to order, city officials, review commission members and others residents took turns expressing their frustration at the process -- which started in June when Yepsen appointed the group’s 15 members -- being stalled.
“I'm concerned that, because they might view it as a threat to their jobs, they may not show up to vote for this,” said Pat Kane, the review group’s vice chairman.
“There's a heavy dose of insincere game-playing going on here,” said Bill McTyge, the city's former Public Works commissioner.
"I think it's very important that all the citizens of our community have the ability to focus on this issue," said Commissioner Mathiesen.
Bob Turner, the review commission’s chairman, said the group has met 40 times over the past eight months researching and discussing a new charter. He said the group was approved for $26,000 by the City Council in June and spent half of that.
Now it hopes to pay Bob Batson, the government lawyer in residence at Albany Law School who has assisted cities like Albany, Amsterdam, Troy and Cohoes with charter review efforts, to draft a charter with a council-manager form of government. The group needs city funding to do so, Turner said.
“The city charter’s like a constitution,” he said. “It’s the most important political document and political decision a city can make. We will not be a able to get it in front of the voters without working with our drafting counsel.”
Madigan said in her statement that she would put the budget amendments on the agenda for the Feb. 7 council meeting “in order to avoid this happening again in the future.”
“I am the Commissioner who requested this meeting and I am the Commissioner who requested it be cancelled if all members could not be in attendance,” she said. “There was no reason for the situation that occurred today at 4:00 pm.”