In 2006, The New York Times ran a glowing profile of Noam Bramson, the then-newly appointed Mayor who had been selected by the City Council to replace outgoing Mayor Tim Idoni who won election as Westchester County Clerk a few days earlier. Some New Rochelle residents have raised questions about the nature of the mayoral position in New Rochelle and whether Bramson is a woefully underpaid full-time City employee or a significantly overpaid part-time government spokesperson who doubles as official cheerleader for economic development for New Rochelle’s downtown business district.
NOAM BRAMSON, the longest-serving and youngest member of the New Rochelle City Council, was sworn in last week as the city’s 23rd mayor. At 36, he is also the city’s youngest mayor, assuming the guardianship of a sprawling, once-prosperous Long Island Sound metropolis that has been struggling for decades….Mr. Bramson, a Democrat first elected to represent the City Council’s Fifth District in 1995, won re-election in 1999 and 2003 with more than 70 percent of the vote. In addition, since 1992, he has been a policy consultant and demographics analyst for Representative Nita M. Lowey.
There is nothing improper with Bramson working for Nita Lowey while serving as Mayor of New Rochelle and there is no intent here to suggest otherwise. Mayor Bramson is an extremely bright, accomplished and talented individual who could earn far more than his current mayoral salary of $90,000 a year in the private sector. Yet no one forced him to accept the position of Mayor in 2006 or run for election to his own term. The problem comes later in the same article:
Mr. Bramson, who as a full-time mayor is the chief legislator of the seven-member City Council, said he would keep a watchful eye on new construction to ensure that the city provides the financing and legislative cooperation necessary to support the new economic progress.
It should come as no surprise that the reporter for the New York Times refers to Bramson as “a full-time mayor” because, sources tell Talk of the Sound, Bramson regularly uses the term to describe himself. The only two people quoted in the Times’ article are Nita Lowey and Bramson which suggests one of them is the source for the “full-time mayor” description in the Times article; readers will have to come to their own conclusions about which of them is the most likely source for the grandiose “full-time mayor” claim.
Asked to comment for this story via e-mail, Bramson told Talk of the Sound that “the full-time vs. part-time status of the position of mayor in New Rochelle is not, as far as I know, formally defined by law”.
Mayor Bramson qualified the above response by noting that the question about whether he is a full-time Mayor is “occasionally the subject of political give-and-take”. Perhaps, but the basis for the question was drawn from the article in The New York Times in which he appears to have been the reporter’s source for the idea that he is a “full-time” Mayor.
Not only is the City Charter not unclear on this point, it is very clear on the very limited role of the Mayor. New Rochelle, like many municipal governments in the United States, has a “weak-mayor” form of mayor-council government where the City Council as a whole possesses both legislative and executive authority. The council as a group — not the Mayor as an individual — appoints officials and exercises primary control over the municipal budget. In this form of government, the mayor, though elected, has little real political power and less independence, serving through largely ceremonial duties. Just as there is no “full-time Mayor” position in New Rochelle there is likewise no such title as “chief legislator” on the City Council.
Some New Rochelle residents question whether, in light of the massive increases — roughly 350% — in mayoral salary over the past few years, any confusion about the full-time/part-time status of the mayor’s job should be clarified. Bramson is being paid a salary that many New Rochelle residents would find more than adequate yet public records from Nita Lowey’s office show that since Bramson was appointed to his current position he has been paid over $100,000 by Lowey. Records going back to 2006 show that Bramson has been paid $3,750 a month for “political consulting services” which Bramson tells Talk of the Sound consists primarily of “messaging”, writing speeches and campaign strategy. Again, nothing wrong with the Mayor earning outside income but that he received 30-40% of his income from sources other than his mayoral salary belies his claim to be a “full-time” Mayor.
Pressed on this point, Bramson tells Talk of the Sound that he believes “successfully discharging the duties of the position in a manner consistent with public expectations requires a full-time commitment”.
Bramson then goes on to explain what he means by full-time commitment; primarily by qualifying the term “full-time” — contrasting it with not working in a “rigid nine-to-five fashion”, not working a “typical forty-hour work-week” and working nights and weekends. Bramson says he has a flexible schedule, that his job is “self-directed” and that this leaves him free to use time during the work-week to do paid work other than his work as Mayor. Bramson did not indicate ways in which his current responsibilities differ from past mayors who were paid a small fraction of his roughly $90,000 salary as mayor.
There are many people who work for the City or the School District who have, as part of their job requirement, an obligation to work in the evening or on the weekends for which they are not paid overtime or otherwise specifically compensated. It is the nature of being a salaried, professional as opposed to earning an hourly wage or working under a union contract. City and School District workers are not entitled to such “make goods” on their time which allows them to essentially moonlight during the course of regular office hours because they may have attended a school board meeting or made a speech at a dinner honoring a New Rochelle resident the night before. There are many other people who put in many hours of service to the City or School District who are not compensated at all for their work. It is even possible that some of these people would be willing to take on the sort of flexible, self-directed, prestige job of Mayor if Mr. Bramson finds the job interferes with his ability to make a living. In fact, the job of mayor in New Rochelle has always come with a somewhat nominal salary prior to the most recent election.
So, what is the difference between having a full-time job and making a full-time commitment to a job? Bramson does not say but using his definitions it would appear that “a full-time commitment to a job” — as opposed to simply a full-time job — is where you are paid a full-time salary but have the flexibility to work for someone else during normal office hours to significantly augment your income so long as you attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies on the weekends.
Things get even more confused when Mayor Bramson seeks to justify his outside income on the grounds that all other recent mayors “maintained some form of outside income during their terms”. Mayor Idoni and those before him were paid a small fraction of what Mayor Bramson earns — more in the realm of $25,000 a year (or less) plus a car, a parking space at City Hall and a small fee for officiating at weddings. Mayor Bramson is being paid many times more money than “recent mayors” but failed to cite any ways in which his job as Mayor is substantially different from past mayors. Beyond making speeches and presiding over City Council meetings, Bramson, like past mayors, does not have the authority to order a single pothole be filled; only Jeff Coleman of DPW can do that, under the direction of City Manager Chuck Strome.
If Noam Bramson was a full-time Mayor his work for Nita Lowey would raise serious questions of conflict of interest. Asked about this, Bramson said he believes his work for Nita Lowey working on “messaging”, writing speeches and campaign strategy does not conflict with his job of Mayor.
Asked to provide assurances that there are safeguards in place to insure that he is not working for Nita Lowey when he is supposed to be working for the City, Mayor Bramson declined to do so. Instead he simply stated that he does not utilize City resources or staff to conduct his private consulting work. This might be fine if the job of Mayor were part-time but makes no sense if the job really is a full-time position.
Safeguards in place for elected officials elsewhere include the public official having a private office near his public office so that he can relocate to the private office when the need arises to make phone calls, check email or otherwise conduct private businesses. In the case of working for Nita Lowey on her campaigns, the issue is compounded because not having these safeguards in place would mean using public resources for purposes of a partisan political campaign. As Mayor Bramson says he is not using any public resources for private business purposes that would mean that he is, for example, not making phone calls on phones provided by the City or using a computer provided by the City. It would means he is not making calls, using a computer or doing any non-public work in his office at City Hall. It would mean he is not holding private meetings at City Hall. It means he does not ask City employees to make private photocopies, work on his web site or run errands for him. It means that he does not drive his City car to private business meetings. Since there are apparently no safeguards in place to address any of this all we have is the Mayor’s assurance that he does not do this. Without specifically questioning the public integrity of any particular public official, the public has a right to expect that there are safeguards in place and that they are followed scrupulously.
Little of this is much of an issue for a weak-form, part-time, largely ceremonial position. If Mayor Bramson would simply acknowledge the true nature of his role as Mayor, the questions raised here would be largely unimportant. To do so, however, might raise other questions such as why — especially in these difficult economic times — the City has dramatically raised Mr. Bramson’s salary to serve as little more than a government figurehead.