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HAMILTON: City Government Case In Point: to Change Our Outcomes we Must First Change Our Way of Thinking

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By: Ken Hamilton

Good news and bad news folks: we citizens are the little things that ought to have been doing the right things, and we failed to do pretty much of anything!

One local Niagaran sat quietly in the seat near the back wall of the side of the auditorium of the Greek Theater of the-then Niagara Falls Convention Center as Brian Meilleur and other members of Eddy Cogan’s newly-formed Niagara Falls Redevelopment revealed their plans to the excited citizens that crammed into the relatively small presentation room. 

It was shortly thereafter a young girl came to the stage, took the microphone and began to read her question concerning what she wanted to see created in the prospectively new downtown. “What will there be for kids to do …” she asked. The Cogan’s response made the people in the auditorium chuckle.  “I hope that you like blackjack,” he said.

As baited breath Niagarans, we waited on the newcomers that had come to town — with money that they had successfully made elsewhere — to do a big thing here that would transform the city into what we Niagarans wanted, and in the way that Niagarans would have done it IF we know how.  And architect John Jerde’s plans were indeed grand. 

The question and answer period continued, and after being given the microphone, the young man by the wall rose from his seat and warned the citizens gathered there, saying that Niagara Falls wouldn’t become great because of any one big thing being done, but by doing a lot of little things instead.

I have to ask the question to all of those who are disenchanted with the condition of the city: what have you done in the 20-years since Cogan clearly indicated that the success of NFR would be on the condition of state-sanctioned casino gaming and that one Niagaran encouraged us to get busy by making the small things happen.

One of the smallest and seemingly insignificant things that we Niagarans do, while expecting huge returns from our time and efforts, is to go to the polls every two years to vote.  News flash, people: if you think that pulling a lever or filling out a dot is tantamount to finding a brass lamp in the sand, rubbing it and waiting to freely get what you want from the genie that pops out, ain’t all genies good and you’ve gotta do a lot more than rubbing just to polish the good ones out.

I have a great deal of respect for the efforts of activist Terry Kline whose not only led the charge to kill the garbage fee, but, as reported by Niagara Reporter Managing Editor Nicholas D. D’Angelo in last week’s (Dec. 19, 2018) paper, is also running a petition in her attempts to get a control board to take over the city’s finances and contract renegotiations.  I wish her well, as the garbage fee was just plain wrong, and is a genie that we certainly couldn’t put back into the lamp.

But good citizens like Kline have to understand as I had to learn: sometimes our lack of FULL understanding is contrary to our initial efforts and brings us what we don’t want.  A control board will guarantee us a garbage fee!

I have long advocated that the biggest step that we can take to fixing the Falls would be to change our government back to how it was when it worked better.  That is by going back to a Weak Mayor/Strong Manager system of government that puts the mayor back as the Chairperson of the Council.  Such a move would facilitate better communications between the mayor and the council. 

But that isn’t the biggest advantage of such a system.  Similar to nearly all American cities, the city of Niagara Falls has never had a professional mayor in its history. In other words, all but one or two mayors in the past have ever been mayors before.  If that is the case, what makes us think that any of them know or knew what they were doing?  Would you hire a doctor who had never gone through a hospital residency program?

The mayor is a political job, and each has acted out their role.  The city is a geopolitical entity, but to be run by politicians is about as bad as it comes.  There is only one way that such can be avoided, and that is with a professional city manager who is under a contract that extends years past the newest-elected councilman who had a vote to hire him or her, allows that person to run the departments and negotiate the contracts, bonuses paid on the quality of their work, requires a super-majority to fire, and who is exempt from residency rules (which keeps the politics out of the job).

No doubt, a control board would certainly augment the decisions that a weak mayor-council would make, and prevents it from making the kind of chronic mistakes that got us to where we are.  Not saying that City Administrator Nick Melson is doing a bad job (and he isn’t, especially by comparison), but how much difference from what a temporary control board could do would such a permanent system make?

In the meantime, more citizens should be doing the many little, but hard things, like Kline is doing.

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