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Watertown city council candidate pushes for full-time mayor

Payne Horning
WRVO News (file photo)

Several seats on Watertown's city council are up for grabs this election, but the outcome of the vote could have more of an impact on the city's mayor.

City council candidate Ryan Henry-Wilkinson says after years of legal battles between the city and its firefighter union, he's campaigning on restoring public trust in city government. Henry-Wilkinson hopes to help accomplish that by changing Watertown's form of government to a strong mayor system replacing the city manager by making the mayor a full-time position.

"The people I’m looking to represent don’t necessarily believe that their elected representatives always have their best interests at heart and I thought that giving them the ability to elect the mayor the city’s executive directly would go a long way to start to rebuild those connections," Henry-Wilkinson said.

Currently, the city council appoints the full-time city manager, who then appoints all department heads. 

"It’s been my contention that we trust the voters at large to vote for council members, but we don’t trust them to just elect the city manager directly," Henry-Wilkinson asked.

If elected, Henry-Wilkinson says he would call for a commission to begin the process of changing the city's charter to make that happen. Two other Watertown councilors, Cody Horbacz and Mark Walczyk, - both of whom are not up for reelection - say they are open to the idea or at least willing to let the voters decide in a referendum. But Watertown's mayor Joe Butler is not.

Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News File Photo
WRVO News File Photo
Watertown Mayor Joe Butler

Butler says making the mayoral position full-time would reduce the number of candidates who are willing or prepared to take on the job. Butler says if the job were not part-time, he would not have run because of the sacrifice it would have meant to his private career. 

"The mayor has a tremendous amount of responsibility as a strong mayor," Butler said. "They are in control of the day-to-day operations, in control of the budget and you have to have deep experience on labor negotiations as well. It would be tough to find a candidate who is well qualified on those fronts."

Butler is also concerned about consolidating that much power into one person's hands.

"You can hire a city manager and you can fire a city manager, and you can do it very quickly," Butler said. "If you get into a bad situation with a rogue mayor that wants to do some damaging things to the city and unravel success, it’s very difficult and not timely for that removal."

Several cities in central New York, including Syracuse, Utica and Oswego, have strong-mayor systems of government.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.