Mike Maneely: The man who wants to be a (visible) mayor

October 16, 2015

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— Calvin Luther Martin, PhD

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Malone has a problem.  I’ve come up with a name for it.  The “Invisible Mayor Syndrome.”  I’ve lived through one administration of Joyce Tavernier, two of Joe Gokey, two of Brent Stewart, and now two of Todd LePine.  Joe, Brent, and Todd all suffered from the Invisible Mayor Syndrome.  (Brent and Todd more than Joe.)

What exactly is the syndrome?  It’s just like the name says:  You never saw these guys!

Go to the village office.  They weren’t there.  (I exaggerate only slightly.)

You didn’t see them around town.

Try to reach them by phone (even leave a message) or email them (we’re in the 21st century, after all).  There’s no response.  Ever.  (At least in my experience.)

You wouldn’t dare call them about a municipal problem or to offer your 2 cents on a municipal issue.
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(None of these guys seem to grasp that they represent the voters.  A mayor should in fact set up a regular forum for getting voters’ opinions on matters of public policy.  To tack on a couple minutes of “public comment” at the end of a village board meeting just doesn’t cut it!  Which leads to the question, “Who is advising these mayors?  Their pals?  Their drinking buddies?”  Scary question, huh?)
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Okay, I’m probably being too hard on Joe, Brent, and Todd.  The job pays a ridiculously small salary.  Twelve thousand dollars ($12,000) per year.  Maybe $12K was reasonable when “Roll Over Beethoven” was #1 on the Hit Parade, but in 2015 it’s absurd and an insult to these public officers.  (Same goes for the trustees’ salaries, by the way, which are $8K.)

Todd LePine, Brent Stewart, and Joe Gokey all needed to make an income, just as I do.  There’s no way they could meet their financial needs by being, simply, Mayor of Malone.  In Todd’s case, he has a business to run — to pay the bills.  That’s reasonable.

This presents us with a dilemma.  Malone is a multi-million-dollar-a-year corporation.  It has a large staff.  Office clerks, police officers, department of public works employees.  It has to deal with all manner of county, state, and federal agencies, besides the gripes, beefs, and opinions of its 6000 residents.

It’s obvious the village needs a highly visible, full-time mayor.  To think otherwise is naive.  And full-time mayors need a realistic salary.

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(Full disclosure.  I, too, would be an invisible mayor.  Yeah, a ghost.  I don’t have the temperament to be publicly available 24/7, or the fortitude to remain on top of the myriad issues.  I would find the job a frustrating, bureaucratic maze.  I’d rather gnaw my leg off than navigate this day after day.)

Do we need a full-time mayor or full-time village manager?  (Village manager.  City manager.  Same thing.)  It’s a timely question, one that many municipalities across America have debated over the past several decades.
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I’ve been pondering the pros and cons of a city manager.  (By the way, there’s a lively discussion of the subject, online.)  My conclusion is that it would be a mistake for us to hire one.

Any conversation on the subject should start with Lord Acton’s famous observation, “Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  I paraphrase him.  (How many of you can name at least one, possibly two, village mayors over the past twenty years who fit Acton’s scathing yet true words?)

Whenever you create a position of power, you must create a realistic mechanism for removing that person from power.  (Remember the American Revolution?  The English Civil War?  The French Revolution?)  History is chock full of creative solutions.

The point being, if you’ve got a mayor who’s a tyrant, you put up with him (I’ll use the male pronoun) for 4 years, then vote him out.  This is the genius of democracy.  Whereas, once you have a city manager, democracy flies out the window.  You’re being run by a non-elected bureaucrat who answers to the mayor.  If the mayor is a weakling or simpleton, the city manager is effectively in control.

If the mayor is corrupt, this makes matters worse.  If the mayor’s a bully and tyrant, coupled with a bullying manager, you’re toast.

Second consideration.  We’re talking about a hefty salary plus benefits plus generous retirement.

Third, despite claims to the contrary, there is no real training for this position.  People with “management” degrees are categorically the wrong people to be managing anything.

Fourth, in a small community like ours, where family connections go back generations,  there invariably would be conflict if the manager were somebody local.  On the other hand, if she’s (he’s) not local, then she wouldn’t really know the community she’s supposed to be managing, and would likely wind up running the day-to-day operations of the village according to one-size-fits-all rules and principles.  Big mistake!

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Forget the idea of a city manager!  We’re better off with a strong mayor.  (This, incidentally, seems to be the consensus in the online literature.)

Let me rephrase this.  We’re better off with a strong mayor, provided he (or she) is someone who —

» you can actually speak to at any given hour of the day
» literally and truly listens (for whom “listening” is not just a campaign promise)
» first and foremost has common sense
» knows the village infrastructure, personnel, history, and community issues
» knows nearly everyone in the village (many by name) and has the personality to get along with virtually everyone (including me)
» is not prone to a “power trip” (no more two-bit tyrants in city hall!)
» won’t harbor a grudge if you disagree with him or her
» is wise and indeed humble enough to take advice and change his (her) mind
» works closely, seamlessly with our sister community, the Town of Malone.  (The village & town are in many ways a single entity.  There is much more they can share by way of services, programs, personnel, and equipment.)

Elect a mayor with this skill set, and chances are good we will be well led and well represented.
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Keep in mind something crucial.  Dusting-off an old Latin phrase, the mayor is primus inter pares.  “The first among equals.”  That is, the mayor is merely the leader and public spokesman for the village trustees.  It’s not enough to elect a good mayor; we must elect trustees who “add value” to the mayor’s skills and, yes, shortcomings.

Rephrasing this, the mayor doesn’t need to be good at every task required to run this village; he (she) merely needs to be good at finding and encouraging good advice from board members and staff and throughout the community (yes, even from people he disagrees with) — and then follow through on that advice.

This is where tyrants make their fatal mistake.  By definition, tyrants and dictators know everything.  “Damn the opposition!  Full speed ahead!”

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Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Tattoo this on your brain!  We’ve seen this too often in our city hall.  No, not outright, goose-stepping fascism, but an insufferable arrogance and bullying, both of which were a cover, frankly, for stupidity.

Which brings me to this man.  There are many compelling reasons for supporting him, but this one is fundamental.  He will not be a tin-horn dictator.
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I’ve been watching Mike Maneely closely for 18 years.  I have attended countless village board meetings where he was a village trustee.  (He’s been on the village board for 14 years, all told.)  I have always been impressed by his thinking and the positions he takes on matters of village interest.

The few times I thought he was dead wrong — as when Boyce Sherwin argued cogently against installing brighter street lights up and down Main Street — Mike listened and changed his mind.

If you look at Mike’s voting and public comments, you will see he was often the spokesman for what turned out to be the best course of action.  A good case in point is the demolition of 395 W. Main Street.  Mike argued from empirical evidence, years ago, that the building was a disaster waiting to happen, and that it should removed when it was relatively easy and cheap to take it down.  Two mayors ignored him.
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Still, this doesn’t convey what’s unique about Mike and, to my way of thinking, makes him ideal for Malone’s current needs.  More than anything else — even more than a $500 million windfall from God Himself — Malone needs to get back its spirit.  I’ve said this repeatedly in these pages, as in the article on Andrea Dumas and her plan for a café on Main Street.  Sister’s Café, I christened it.  (The cafe is still in the works.  Andrea and Wally, her fiance, are considering another location on Main Street, after negotiations to buy the initial site fell through.)

Mike would be the kind of mayor who would put in the time and energy to make Sister’s a reality.  More than lip-service (“Hey!  Yeah!  I think it’s a great idea!”), he would work to bring together the necessary financing and builders and permits to make it happen.  That’s a real mayor.  Invisible mayors don’t do this.  Mike would do the same for any other home-grown, locally-owned, promising enterprise, including the new Horton Mill.
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Here’s how Mike operates.  This isn’t wishful thinking; this is what he actually does as a trustee.  I’ve witnessed it.

Imagine Malone as the 8 buildings shown below.  Each has a unique set of residents.  Each building represents a unique set of issues requiring the attention of public officials.  Both scenarios, below, happen frequently in principle, if not in detail, to Mike as Village Trustee.  As you read, imagine Mike as mayor, doing what he does now as trustee.


Building #1.  The elderly lady living in this home woke up this morning to discover her sewer backed up in her basement. Ethel Lamica is 81 years old and still living on her own. She doesn’t want to go into a nursing home, for the simple reason she’s healthy. She wants to maintain her independence as long as she can. With the sewer problem, she’s scared. She’s afraid that if she calls her adult daughter living in Albany, her daughter will tell her, once more, that she needs to move into an assisted living facility. For Ethel, the septic crisis has ballooned into a crisis of independence.

She calls the Village Office and asks if the mayor happens to be in. “Unfortunately, no,” answers the clerk, “but you are welcome to call him on his cellphone.”  The clerk gives her Mike’s cell number. Ethel dials the number. Mike immediately answers. He listens carefully as she explains her dilemma. He tells her he will be right over to scope out the problem, telling her not to worry. “Mrs. Lamica, we’ll have this taken care of within the hour!”

Building #2.  The family living in this home is at its wits end. The Fergusons recently bought this home in the village, after falling in love with its hardwood floors and other charms. Dad is a teacher at the Middle School and mom is a stay-at-home mom with a toddler.

The problem is that they now find they are living next door to a rental property, where the tenants often play loud music, seemingly day and night, and yell obscenities and profanities at each other, oblivious to the neighbors.

Mrs. Ferguson calls the Village Office and asks to speak with the mayor. The clerk gives her Mike’s cell number. Sarah Ferguson calls it, and Mike immediately answers: “Mike Maneely!” Mrs. Ferguson introduces herself and begins by apologizing for bothering the mayor. “Not at all!” responds Mike, “call me any time!  This is what I’m here for.”

Given his warm reception, Sarah feel more comfortable explaining their problem.

“Do you happen to know the name of the landlord?” Mike asks.  “Oh, I don’t,” replies Sarah.  “Not to worry,” says Mike, “I can look it up.  I’ll personally speak to the landlord, whoever it is, and I think we can solve this problem easily.”

Mike has the office staff find out who the landlord is.  It happens to be Joe Swift, a notoriously uncooperative, cranky landlord.  Mike stops by Joe’s home that evening and they have a friendly chat.  Joe promises to monitor his tenants more carefully.

Mike stops by the rental home the following evening and has a friendly chat with the tenants, explaining how their behavior is actually ruining the neighbors’ quality of life.  They are apologetic, not having realized their music and conversations were so public.

Mike then checks with Sarah & Todd Ferguson on the weekend.  “How are things, now?” he asks.  “Oh, much better!” says a happy Sarah.  “Away better!  Thanks for caring!”

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You can create your own scenarios for the others, #3 through #8.  An apartment building, a church, a school, and so forth.

“Thanks for caring!”  This could be Mike Maneely’s motto.  Invisible mayors, by definition, don’t care.  They say they do, but in practice — boots on the ground — they don’t.

This is what worries me about Joe Riccio, who is running on the Democratic ticket.  (Mike is running as a Republican.)  Joe is a fine man.  He’s in his second term as Village Trustee.  He brings much talent to the village board.  He’s articulate, thoughtful, smart, and socially polished.  You couldn’t ask for a better trustee.

The problem with Joe is this:
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Joe works full-time in Saranac Lake.  He’s Communications Director for the Adirondack Medical Center.  Malone needs a mayor who’s actually in . . . Malone.  Not Saranac Lake.  Even if Joe cut back his hours in Saranac Lake, it would not suffice.  Malone simply cannot afford another part-time, invisible mayor.  As the saying goes, “Been there.  Done that.”

Mike Maneely would be visible Monday through Friday, 8 am to 5 pm.  Yes, in Malone.
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