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Elkins officials want details on city manager costs, tenure

ELKINS — Members of Elkins City Council questioned the cost of creating a city manager Thursday and asked what the tenure of the position would be if the city changes the style of government the municipality employs while updating the city charter.

Council members heard a presentation from attorney Tim Stranko, an attorney specializing in municipal law hired by the city in December, about the need for a charter update during Thursday’s virtual council meeting. Stranko also explained the different types of government the city could utilize if a change is deemed necessary.

“The charter is 120 years old, give or take a month or two,” he said. “A lot of things have changed in both federal law and more directly in state law that need to be considered and clarified in the charter.”

Stranko shared a slide show presentation with council that highlighted the objectives of the possible charter change. He said the project objectives include amending, clarifying and simplifying the city charter, including the deletion of redundant, obsolete and unnecessary provisions; considering a change to clarifying the description of the organization of city government; and considering changes to council composition and the election calendar.

He said the goals include creating a sound, stable and efficient management of city affairs, and to make sure “we are able to deliver quality responsive service to our citizens, residents and businesses.”

Stranko highlighted the process the city would have to undertake to change the charter. He said council would propose amendments by creating a proposed ordinance, and announce the amendments in a Class II legal advertisement.

Council would then conduct a public hearing, and if qualified objections remained 10 days after the public hearing, council could order the proposed amendments be put to the voters at the next regular municipal election or at a special election.

If no qualified objections are received or if the objection is resolved within 10 days of the hearing, council can then adopt the charter changes by ordinance.

He explained the forms of government:

∫ The mayor-council plan (weak mayor), currently employed by the city of Elkins, in which council is elected at large, by wards or both; mayor is elected at large; mayor and council serve as the governing body and the mayor has administrative authority.

“These forms of government are legislated and therefore in West Virginia Code,” Stranko said. “They have been around for some time and almost without exception … every one of our municipal governments fits into of these forms, whether by design or happenstance. Since Elkins’ charter was written in 1901, these forms were not included in the card. It was by happenstance that Elkins has this form of government. It is very democratic and I will say as an outsider … it is a model that works pretty good.”

∫ The strong mayor plan. in which council is elected at large, by wards or both; mayor is elected at large; council is the governing body; and the mayor has administrative authority.

∫ The city manager plan, in which council is elected at large, by wards or both; the mayor is elected from and by city council; a city manager would be appointed by council; and council is the governing body and the manager is the administrative authority.

∫ The mayor-city manager plan in which council is elected at large, by wards or both; mayor is elected at large; the city manager is appointed by council; and council is the governing body and the manager is the administrative authority.

“The city can choose to follow one of those models, it could choose to follow its own model, it can choose to follow no model whatsoever,” he said. “The charter is something wholly belonging into the city. My recommendation is to choose one of those models and clearly state it in a charter amendment.”

Stranko ran each of the models through criteria including: quality of operations – performance management; public engagement/responsiveness to constituents; elected Official support; cost; budget development and supervision; strategic/capital planning; public safety/emergency management; and economic development.

“As you consider these, try to consider these alternatives for Elkins in the abstract, that is as objectively as you possibly can. … These are systemic changes, not personnel driven,” he said.

Stranko said weighing the pluses and minuses, he was in favor of a city manager position.

“I think professional city management for a city with the potential and strength that Elkins has is an excellent alternative,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t succeed in some other model, but it is one you may find quite helpful as we grow the city.”

Fourth Ward Council member Marilynn Cuonzo asked what the next step the city should take in making changes to the charter. Stranko said he believes the charter needs to be updated and if the city wants to change the type of government it must first choose one of the models.

Council member Judy Guye, Fourth Ward, said in 2007 city council had dozens of community leaders working on the Vision 2010 plan to lead Elkins into the next decade. She said the volunteers were broken down into several subgroups and one of them was government.

“Vision 2010 discussions focused on the need to install professionals in government to bring about better management and accountability,” Guye said. “To accomplish this objective Vision 2010 recommended changing the form of government in the city to that of city manager.”

She said the group also recommended extending the term of mayor from two to four years.

“It has taken 10 years for these recommendations to be looked at again,” Guye said. “The report went on to say failing action by city officials, the citizens of Elkins should engage in a public petition process to force the vote to change the form of government.”

Elkins City Clerk Jessica Sutton said the adopted Elkins 2018-2023 Elkins Strategic Plan also included a goal to investigate the possibility of the introduction of city manager. Sutton said she hoped council could have something by the next city council meeting to present to the public as a draft of proposed changes to the charter.

Councilman Rob Chenoweth, First Ward, said there is no question that someone who has expertise in running the city, accompanied by authority to run the city, would be a benefit, but the cost needs to be figured out.

“A city manager … isn’t cheap when you are thinking of wages or benefits. It is not going to be a city manager alone, it is going to be probably an assistant, a secretary. It is going to be a large expense for the city of Elkins. The question is, is that expense going to be beneficial in the long run? If we determine it is, how are we going to pay for it? That is the discussion that we really need to have, is the benefit of having a city manager outweighed by the very high cost of having one, versus going with what we already have.

“If we decide the city manager is the way to go, how are we going to pay for it? By cutting council positions, by cutting administrative officer positions? The money is going to have to come from somewhere.”

Councilwoman Karen Wilmoth, Fourth Ward, said having a citymanager position would have benefits, but questioned what the tenure of a city manager in a city the size of Elkins should be.

“If we are not paying enough, then it just turns into a revolving door of a new city manager every time we turn around, then there is no continuity and I can see where that could be detrimental to the city,” she said.

Stranko said he would have to do some research and would report information back to Sutton.

“I think we all do agree the city charter from 1901 is definitely outdated. We agree we need to look at it and make some changes,” Elkins Mayor Van Broughton said. “We need to decide the model so we can get a draft and take it to the public for input.”

Broughton asked if it could be brought back as an agenda item to discuss which model of government the city could adopt during the next council meeting.

Councilman David Parker, Fifth Ward, agreed it should be on the agenda for the next meeting. Chenoweth said he agreed on discussing it during the meeting, but public engagement would be limited at this point with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“It obviously it isn’t the best time in the world to be engaging with the public,” Chenoweth said.

Discussion on the model of government the city could adopt will be on the agenda for the next Elkins City Council meeting, slated for 7 p.m. Aug. 20.

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