WESTMINSTER — What is first apparent about the new City Council is the visual contrast to its predecessor.
Three members -- Stephen R. Chapin Sr., Rebecca A. Orenstein and Kenneth A. Yowan, who won seats in the May 13election -- contribute to the new appearance of the council, which had its first meeting Monday.
Even the Council Chamber has a new look. The room is rearranged, and the entire council faces the audience. And for the first time in more than a year, Mayor W. Benjamin Brown took his council table seat, which he has eschewed for a chair in the crowd.
If Monday's meeting is any indication, the new council has a different approach to city government to go along with its visual make-over, because it wasted no time undoing deeds of the former council.
For one, it passed an ordinance that lowered the city's property tax rate to 83 cents per $100 of assessable value. That move erased the 91 cent tax rate theformer council passed May 13 and means city taxes on the average $134,000 home will drop from $1,219 to $1,112; county taxes add another $1,260.
The tax cut also means $187,200 will be lost from the coming year's budget passed last week by the previous council. The new council proceeded Monday to pass an amendment based on the tax cut, deleting that amount from the $1.3 million set aside for new city offices; the council has put that project on hold.
It didn't stop there.
An ordinance to restore executive power removed from the mayor bythe previous council last year was approved for introduction. The measure, offered by Yowan, also would abolish the position of city manager, currently occupied by Philip Hertz, who started work in February.
However, Yowan, who served on the council from 1983 to 1987, assured that Hertz' future as a city employee is not in jeopardy. If themeasure is passed, Hertz' duties and responsibilities would be re-evaluated, but the post would be redefined and, most likely, retained, Yowan said.
"I don't think there's any intent on my part or anyoneelse's part to fire Mr. Hertz or decrease his salary," Yowan said after the meeting. "He's still employed by the city."
Councilman Edward S. Calwell cast the lone dissenting ballot on the vote to introduce the measure, on which the council will act in the coming weeks.
Like the tax rate, the matter of mayoral duties had emerged as a heated issue before the election. Both issues were among the factors credited for the defeat of incumbents Samuel V. Greenholtz and Mark S. Snyder. The third seat came open when Council President Kenneth J. Hornberger decided not to seek a third term.
When the previous council passed the legislation that created the manager's position, it gavethat person supervision over department heads and the day-to-day operation of city government.
Brown agreed that the city needed a manager but criticized the council for transferring his oversight of government operations and objected to the $57,500 salary. The council countered that it simply followed the recommendation of a task force established to study the matter.
At least for one night, the contentiousness that marked previous council meetings was absent. Monday's meeting was characterized by smiles and courteous words, which have been rare occurrences during the past year. If that wasn't enough, there were even flowers.
To start the meeting off, the council electedWilliam F. Haifley president (as such he votes only to break ties) and picked Yowan to back up Haifley as president pro tem.
Orensteinthen presented Haifley and Brown with white-carnation boutonnieres.
The city's first-ever female council member offered the flowers tothe men "in the spirit of celebration and peace" and welcomed Haifley as the new council president.
A smiling Haifley thanked the members for their support and vowed to live up to the task.
Brown tookthe opportunity to call for a new start between the mayor and council, a relationship that had been strained and fraught with ill will and unproductivity over the past several months.
"I see a strong, confident council, one not content to act within the constraints of 'we've always done it that way,' " he said. "I see members determined tobe public servants in the fullest sense of the term -- open decision-making up to not only public scrutiny but also to input."
Brown also extended an olive branch to Haifley and Edward S. Calwell, the other council holdover.
"Quite a bit of water has gone under our bridge over the past two years," he said.
"But last week's election burst the dam which had held that water close at hand. . . . If in thefuture we disagree, then let our worst failure be that we agree to cordially disagree."
The look of council meetings could undergo further revamping in coming weeks. Orenstein requested that the council seek out a new meeting place, a suggestion others have offered in recent months. The councilwoman cited cramped space and lack of accessibility for disabled residents.