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Three Ways the Buffalo City Charter is Being Violated

Perhaps Buffalo’s lack of a strategy, accountability, and performance stems from the failure to follow key aspects of the city’s charter?

A city’s charter is an important legal document that specifies what city officials must do or can’t do when operating city government. Like the United States Constitution, a charter is the supreme law as to a city’s powers and responsibilities.

In 1926 the citizens of Buffalo voted to empower Mayor Frank Schwab to form a commission to design a new charter for the City of Buffalo. In 1927 the voters of Buffalo approved a new charter which separated the legislative powers of the city council from the executive powers of the mayor. Major revisions to the city charter were also made and approved by Buffalo residents in 1983 and 2002.

When citizens vote to make changes to a city charter, they expect that the requirements of the charter will be implemented and followed by city officials. Unfortunately some very important aspects of the Buffalo city charter are not being followed and the failure to do so is hurting the performance of city government.

Under the city charter the mayor is the chief executive officer of the city and is responsible for enforcing its laws, and supervising and directing all department heads to ensure that the duties of city officers, departments, boards, commissions, and other city agencies are faithfully performed. As such, the responsibility for ensuring that the city charter is being followed falls on the shoulders of the mayor.

I could write about many ways that the city charter is not being followed, but here are the three most important violations in my opinion:

Joint meetings of key officials for strategic planning purposes are not taking place

Under the city charter (6-4), the mayor is given the power to appoint the executive director of strategic planning. The charter requires the executive director of strategic planning to convene a quarterly joint meeting of the following officers to assist in the development and implementation of the city’s four year strategic plan: the mayor, city comptroller, the chairman of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, and the chief executive officers of the city’s local development corporations. The quarterly joint meeting shall also include, with the consent of their respective governing bodies, the president of the board of education, the superintendent of schools, the chair of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, and the chair of the Buffalo Sewer Authority.

Getting all of the above key officials in the same room quarterly is a great idea for strategic planning purposes but it has never happened. As far as I know, the mayor has never pushed to have such a strategic meeting take place once, let alone quarterly.

Annual management plan and report not being filed

The city charter requires the mayor to submit to the Common Council with the annual budget message, not later than the first day of May each year, an annual management plan and report. The annual management plan and report shall address the objectives and accomplishments of each department of city government and shall consist of:

a) A statement of the department’s objectives for the last previous fiscal year, and an evaluation of each department’s achievement of those objectives.

b) A statement of strategic and administrative objectives for the department in the ensuing fiscal year with specific action steps to achieve the stated objectives.

c) A list of the names, title and qualifications of all persons appointed to exempt positions in the department during the previous and current fiscal years, with a summary of assignment of powers and duties among them.

d) A forecast of expenditures and revenues of the department for the next fiscal year and the succeeding three years. The forecast shall be updated to reflect changes made in the annual operating budget.

Requiring each city department/agency head to report their objectives and achievements on an annual basis is an important exercise for setting goals and holding city department heads accountable for their performance. An annual report as outlined above is not being filed with the Common Council.

Uniform performance reviews for all city employees are not occurring

According to the city charter the commissioner of human resources is responsible for the formulation of a uniform performance review system and a merit based compensation system for all city employees, and shall work with the commissioners of each city department to assist in the implementation of such systems in their respective departments to the fullest extent possible under current law and existing collective bargaining agreements.

In my 17 years of government employment, I was evaluated twice for my performance. In successful organizations performance expectations are clearly communicated to employees and feedback is provided on a regular basis. As far as I know, city employees are not being evaluated annually under any type of performance review system and a merit-based compensation system has not been proposed in any way.

One of the biggest criticisms of Mayor Byron Brown is that he lacks a bold vision for the City of Buffalo. Following the charter requirements above would greatly help in developing an overall strategy, management objectives, and employee accountability for city government.

As the third-poorest city in the nation, Buffalo needs government leaders who are working together on creative strategies with clearly defined objectives that people are held accountable for. The requirements set forth in the city charter created by citizen volunteers and approved by voters over the years, contains a great deal of wisdom. We simply need our elected leaders to carry out their legal obligations by following the requirements of the city charter.

Paul Wolf is an attorney who previously served as chief of staff to the Buffalo Common Council. Paul is in the process of creating a non-profit organization called the Center for Reinventing Government:

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