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Should Watertown get rid of its city manager and give the mayor more power?

Sarah Harris
Current Watertown city manager Sharon Addison. Her contract is up at the end of June

The city of Watertown is considering changing the way it runs its government. Right now, Watertown has a powerful city manager who oversees departments and runs day-to-day affairs. But that person isn't elected - they're appointed by the city council, which includes the mayor.

When Ryan Henry-Wilkinson ran for and won a city council seat last fall, he campaigned on this idea: that voters should choose the most powerful city official.

"If we trust the voters to elect us," Henry-Wilkinson said, "why can’t we trust the voters to elect an executive officer directly?"

Henry-Wilkinson’s in favor of getting rid of the city manager position and giving the mayor more power. But that can only happen by revising the city charter.

"Basically the charter is the constitution for the city," explained Jeff Smith, former Watertown city councilman. He’s been appointed chair of a new commission to review Watertown’s charter and see what needs updating.

This idea of switching from a city manager to a strong mayor – it’s just one of the changes the commission will weigh. 

Mayor Joe Butler appointed the charter commission. But he doesn’t actually like the idea of concentrating too much power in the hands of a single elected official.

"If you don’t like the mayor, you can remove them by election. If you don’t like the city manager, you can remove them immediately," Butler said.

Having a city manager, he said, "[has] worked for us since 1920."

The mayor has faced criticism from city councilors, who say he appointed his supporters to the charter commission.

There’s another problem: current manager Sharon Addison’s contract is up at the end of June. And there’s some fear that possibly changing the city charter could care away potential applicants for the job.

The commission will have to hold public hearings on any proposed changes. The public will vote whether or not to change the charter in fall 2019.

Sarah is a correspondent for North Country Public Radio, based in Canton, N.Y.