312-YEAR-OLD DOCUMENT SHAPES CITY'S GOVERNMENT

EDWARD FITZPATRICK Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B4

Date: Wednesday, June 3, 1998

It hasn't been on display in years. Most of the time, it just sits on a shelf in a vault at the Albany County Hall of Records.


But Albany's charter, the 312-year-old document that shapes city government and its power structure, hasn't been forgotten. ``It's still here, and they're still arguing over it after all these years,'' County Clerk Thomas G. Clingan said Tuesday as he viewed the document. ``The average person knowledgeable about city affairs doesn't even know it's there.''


The oldest city charter in force in the United States is arguably the longest-running instrument of municipal government in the Western Hemisphere, according to Stefan Bielinski, author of ``Government by the People,'' a 64-page book written to mark Albany's Tricentennial in 1986.


The charter was on display for the Tricentennial celebration, said Mary Wallen, executive director of the Hall of Records, a joint city-county program at 250 S. Pearl St. It's been in the vault since then, along with old books and court records, some of which are written in Dutch.


``I'm assuming it might get some attention this year,'' Wallen said of the charter.


Clingan said the charter is believed to be one of a kind, and it's all but uninsurable because it could not be replaced. ``It's probably among the most valuable things we have here,'' he said.


The charter, now encased in protective glass and a walnut frame, is written out in script on parchment, 25 inches wide and 23 inches tall. The writing is faded in spots, but the signature of Thomas Dongan, the British governor of Colonial New York, is clearly visible at the bottom. Below it is the governor's seal, affixed with tan and blue strands.


Dongan was an Irish-born career soldier who was commissioned as New York's first royal governor. His charter for Albany gave the British a much stronger tie with settlers of the Hudson Valley, but it also gave the residents of Albany long-sought trading and property rights. ``From the beginning, the Charter pleased all those directly concerned,'' Bielinski wrote.


In recent years, however, some have called it outdated. Officials have agreed on the need for a change, though they differ on details. In any case, the Nov. 3 vote will not the invalidate venerable document:


``There is some historical significance to having the oldest existing city charter in the country,'' said Stephen J. Rehfuss, the charter commission chairman. ``Out of respect for the document and its history, we decided it would be best to amend it, and not abolish it. It will still be the Dongan Charter.''