Councilors differ over proposed charter changes

By KAITLYN NAPLES
STAFF WRITER
The City Council, which was minus one member at last week’s special meeting, had split feelings on some of the proposed changes to the city’s charter.
After months of preparation and several public hearings, the Charter Revision Commission presented its draft changes to the City Council last week, where the members ultimately sent concerns and recommended changes back to the commission.
One of the proposals is to implement a “mayor-city council-city manager” kind of operation, where the mayor would continue to be a voting member and chairperson of the council, joint board and other boards that the mayor currently chairs, and would continue to make appointments to boards. The city manager would be responsible for running day-to-day operations such as hiring department heads, supervising department heads and employees, and conducting annual written appraisals of all non-elected department heads, a press release from the commission said. The city manager would not be involved in voting on city issues, and would prepare the annual budget, be responsible for long-term strategic planning and implementing the budget, policies and procedures of the city.
The only councilor who was in favor of this proposal was Councilor Henri Martin, who said having a city manager would allow the city to be run more efficiently with “a greater accountability” regarding city departments.
He said the city manager would be “well-schooled” in certain financial complexities, and would also be a non-partisan position that “would take politics out of running the city.”
City Clerk Therese Pac said she was concerned with the amount of supervisory control the city manager would have over certain departments, especially since some department heads are unionized.
City Councilor Ken Cockayne said the city manager proposal came up a few years ago, and he was in favor of it, but now he said the city already discussed it and the people were against it.
“We already had this fight, I don’t think we should revisit it again,” Cockayne added.
City Councilor Derek Czenczelewski said he saw positive and negative aspects of the city manager position, but in the end “it takes the people out of the decisions.” If voters don’t like the way the city is being run by the council and mayor, they can vote that person, or persons, out of office. With a city manager, the voters have no say.
Mayor Art Ward also said he was not in favor of a city manager and said it wouldn’t only be the city manager’s salary the city would have to pay, but also the support staff that would come with the position.
The council voted to send the proposal back to the commission and recommended they delete it.
Another possible proposal the commission is considering is allowing the public to vote on a proposed budget if it is more than 3 percent of the current budget’s bottom line. If the budget failed, it would be decreased to 3 percent. If a budget was approved by the joint board (which is the City Council and Board of Finance combined), with a 3 percent increase or less increase, there would be no referendum.
This proposal had a split vote among councilors, where councilors Eric Carlson, Cockayne, and Czenczelewski were in favor of it.
“I think it is a good idea (especially for capital projects),” Cockayne said, adding that his only recommended change on the proposal would be to have the referendum be split and have the public vote on the city government’s budget and the Board of Education’s budget separately.
City Councilor Mayra Sampson said she was not in favor of the referendum because she has seen towns where people will go out to just vote against the budget.
She said there are many opportunities for the public to get involved in the budget process, such public meetings and public hearings. Also, if the referendum does not bring out more than 15 percent of voters, it doesn’t count “so the vote was held for nothing.”
A referendum, Pac said, can cost the city about $20,000.
The council was split on how to proceed with this proposal, and agreed to send it back to the Charter Revision Commission to take into consideration the concerns that were raised by councilors.
Another proposed change is to implement term limits. The mayor and council members would be limited to four consecutive two-year terms, the commission said last week, and the Board of Education members would be limited to two consecutive four-year terms. Once the eight years are up for that public official, he or she can either take a year off and campaign again the following election, or campaign for another position.
Councilor Sampson said she was against term limits because “it takes away from the democratic process,” and added it isn’t easy right now to get people to run for office. Cockayne and Ward agreed and said the people should decide when their representatives should be ousted.
The council recommended the commission also take into consideration the concerns raised about the term limit proposal as well.
One proposal the city leaders agreed on unanimously was to eliminate constables as an elected post. Constables are mandated by the state, however if this proposal is approved, the positions would be appointed.
The Charter Revision Commission will continue to work on these proposed changes, and bring them back to the council again before they are approved to be placed on the ballot this November.