Letter To The Editor

To the Editor:

In the upcoming election, city voters will be asked to vote on referendums A through Q Referendum A is renewal of the current street maintenance tax, which provides a needed source of funds for street maintenance. Referendum proposals B through Q are amendments to the city charter. Each referendum item is carefully worded to encourage and lead the voter into voting yes, by presenting the item with favorable language, and doesn’t completely or fully explain the consequences if passed.  

I’ll be the first to admit that our current charter is dated and needs improvement, or even replacement, and proposals B and C are improvements to the current charter. However, the charter revisions proposed, D through Q, are not what we need. 

The Charter to the city, is like the Constitution to the U.S. The Charter is our city’s most important document. It sets forth how our government works, and establishes how city government operates and is managed. It basically authorizes and governs how essential city services are provided, such as how police and fire protection, ambulance, water, and sewer, streets, parks, zoning and other ordinances are managed and funded through fees and taxation.

More importantly, the Charter sets forth how the elected governing body (commissioners or council members) and city management interact. The purpose of the city commission (city council) is to serve as a legislative body and to exercise oversight of city government.

This is why I, along with others, have strong reservations about the charter amendment proposals.  It’s not just what the proposed charter amendments say, but also what they don’t say, and what hasn’t been plainly told to the public.

Much of the amended charter defers to what is allowed by state law, which can be very liberal in terms of what is permitted. This is so that home rule cities, like Marshall, can adopt their own guidelines and criteria of what is permissible.

In this case, the referendum amendments essentially create a strong city manager – weak council form of governance, and eliminate certain checks and balances in our current charter. Our current charter has a commission – city manager form of governance, with greater oversight authority resting in the commission, and therefore citizen voters. This leads to more transparency and accountability, an important check and balance on city governance.

Below are a few key points of concern that I have with the charter amendment proposals. My concerns are based upon experience and problems encountered in serving twelve years as a mayor and commissioner.

1.  The new charter amendments change the city form of organization from a commission to a city council. In so doing, it unnecessarily takes away some of the oversight functions, and limits the authority of the newly formed city council. 

2.  Under the present charter, department heads are hired by the city manager, with the consent of the city commission. Under the new charter amendments, consent of the council is not required. This eliminates a key oversight function that voters expect of their elected officials. Under the proposed amendments, this important check and balance is eliminated.

3.  Under our present charter and by precedent and tradition, the city secretary and finance director are one and the same, and are hired by the commission. Under the new proposed charter amendments, the city secretary is hired by the council, and the finance director is hired by the city manager, without approval of the council. This means all financial information presented to council and to the public, will flow through the filter of the city manager. This presents an untenable situation in terms of oversight, transparency and accountability. Under the proposed amendments, this important check and balance is eliminated.

4. Under the proposed amended charter, the public will expect the elected council to be able to exercise fiscal and managerial oversight of the city, but the council will not have the direct authority to effectively exercise that oversight. And, with a non-cooperative city management, council members would essentially be relegated only to the limited and untimely type of information they could get through a FOIA request.

5.  The term limits of city council members will change from two years to four years. This is bad, because too often members of the commission pass through office unqualified for the position, or simply aren’t interested in investing the time required to make good decisions. Four years is too long for them to hold office. Our present charter limits them to two years. Further, the proposed amendments undo the eight year term limits imposed by voters, and restarts the eight year term limits for every sitting commissioner. Those who are about to be term limited, will get another eight year run on the council.

6. The new charter proposals permit the filling of vacancies on the commission by appointment of the commission, in lieu of waiting for a special election to fill the vacancy. This politicizes the appointment of council members, – something our present charter doesn’t permit. 

7. The proposed amendments have a newly added feature. It provides for removal of a commissioner for unexcused absences. We’ve never had a problem with multiple absences, unless it involved a health issue. This provision is overreaching and harsh for a part time unpaid office. It politicizes determination of what is an excused absence, by giving the council the power to remove a council member on subjective grounds as to what is excused, and appoint a successor without benefit of a public election, effectively thwarting a previous public election.

8. The proposed charter amendments give broad authority to the new council to create debt, and levy any associated tax or fee increases, without voter approval – eliminating another important check and balance.

9.  The new charter removes commission oversight authority of the police department, and places it solely under the city manager’s oversight. In the past we had a police investigation being stifled by city management, which never would have come to light but for the police chief’s ability under the current charter to bring it to the attention of the commission, without fear of losing his job. Under the proposed amendments, this important check and balance is eliminated.  

10. For ordinances, including changes in zoning ordinances, the time for public notice is shortened. Ordinances will be passed on the first reading instead of the currently required second reading. Second readings are usually two weeks later, giving more time for public awareness and response. Under the proposed amendments, this important check and balance is eliminated.

There is a difference between micromanaging and exercising simple oversight. These are some of the key points, which I feel make this a bad charter, in terms of the council’s ability to exercise adequate oversight, and to hold government accountable to the voters. We need to scrap these proposals, go back and invest the time, with qualified charter commission members, to carefully and thoughtfully write a new charter. 

Vote “No” D through Q.

In the meantime – an old charter is better than a bad charter. 

Sincerely,

Ed Smith

Former mayor and commissioner

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