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Officials call for public input on Onondaga County, Syracuse consolidation

Ellen Abbott
Melanie Littlejohn, head of the Consensus public engagement committee, speaks on the proposed consolidation of Onondaga County governments.

Change in the way government is organized could be on the way to Onondaga County. The first step towards a municipal government that includes both the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County has taken place with the release of the Consensus CNY commission’s preliminary report.

"Today is the start of a wonderful new discussion our community,” said Melanie Littlejohn, who heads the public engagement committee of consensus, the group that’s been researching ways for government to be more effective and efficient the past year and a half. It’s her job to get the community excited about the more than 50 recommendations that focus on three areas.

"First, it's about better governance, it’s about economic growth and third, and very importantly, it’s about inclusion and representation," Littlejohn said.

There are  ideas in this preliminary report about consolidating the city and county water agencies, economic agencies and police agencies.  There’s a proposal to share purchasing and to use the same kind of software and information technology between clerks offices. But, probably the most dramatic proposal is the creation of a new metropolitan government from the ground up, explained by commission co-chair, and former congressman, Jim Walsh.

"One government of the city and the county covering all the geography of the county and the towns and villages would maintain their current status, until and unless, the people of those communities voted to opt in," Walsh said.

Representatives of towns and villages say they’re on board, including Fayetteville Mayor Mark Olsen.

“It really gives the villages of twos and villages two chances to vote and be part of this process, and that was important on our end - that our residents are part of this process," Olsen said.

But before any of these recommendations become final, the commission wants feedback from the community, and lots of it. Sharon Owens of the Southwest Community Center especially wants communities that often don’t have a say in the decision making process to speak up.

“For the majority of our community who don’t have the privilege of sitting at special interest tables when conversations are happening that will affect their lives, this is why we want you to comment," Owens said. "Don’t be overwhelmed.”

Committee members say continued population loss, economic malaise and local governments that are operating on the edge have created a time and a place where a revamped government can change a community for the better. Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney said it would be tragic if negativity and politics lets this moment in time pass with no action.

“Open your mind, read the document, think of the ways we can do better and lend your voice to this process," Mahoney said.

The 80-page document is available online. Hearings will begin next week, with a final report due in April.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.