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Elkins Council releases charter change draft

ELKINS — Elkins City Council has released a revised draft city charter and commenced the steps required for that draft to be eligible for adoption via ordinance in November, Elkins City Clerk Jessica Sutton announced Friday.

Council has been looking at proposed changes to the outdated city charter, which dates to 1901, and held an in-person Q&A session for the issue at the Phil Gainer Community Center in late August.

On Oct. 1, Mayor Van Broughton cast the deciding vote after Elkins City Council was deadlocked in a tie vote on whether to have an attorney prepare a proposed ordinance making city charter changes for council to vote on.

Under the plan released by the city clerk’s office Friday, council will be able to adopt uncontroversial charter changes during the Nov. 19 city council meeting, while still leaving time to place disputed changes on the ballot for the March 2021 city election. The plan states that the effective date of any charter amendments, whether adopted via ordinance or election, would be April 1, 2021.

“A city charter is the foundational document of a municipality,” Elkins City Clerk Jessica Sutton said in a press release late Friday afternoon. “It lays out the structure, authorities, and basic operating rules of a city’s government. Here in Elkins, our charter hasn’t been updated since 1901, so it was time to take a look at what may need adapted to the times.”

According to Sutton, the charter-change process permitted by W.Va. Code § 8-4-8 and now being followed by council gives officials needed flexibility while ensuring that the resources expended this year to research and recommend possible charter changes–including more than $10,000 in legal fees and hundreds of hours of staff time–are not wasted.

“It’s up to city councilors to accept or reject whatever charter changes they see fit, but they can’t do that without releasing an official endorsed charter draft and following the steps laid out in state code,” Sutton said in the release. “The draft we released today, which is based on direction provided by council at its last meeting, includes some items where council has reached consensus and other items that not everyone agrees with. The good thing about this process is that it enables council to easily make the changes everyone agrees with while still allowing the option of putting the remaining changes in the hands of voters.”

Significant changes proposed in the draft charter update include adoption of what West Virginia state code calls the Manager-Mayor plan of government, extending the mayor’s term from two to four years, and shifting city elections from March to June (starting with the 2023 election).

The update would not change either the number of or the required qualifications for council members but would allow voters to cast a ballot for every ward’s representatives, not just their own.

The process announced Friday includes a public hearing on Nov. 9, when any qualified city voter or freeholder may enter objections concerning the proposed draft. This input opportunity is in addition to an in-person Q&A that was hosted by council in early September, an online survey, and correspondence submitted to the clerk’s office.

Qualified objections to the charter update submitted from now to the close of the hearing on Nov. 9, if not withdrawn within 10 days after the hearing, would prevent the indicated charter changes from being adopted via ordinance. Council could then either place these changes on the March 2021 ballot or decide not to pursue them further.

Sutton said the adoption-via-ordinance process gives Elkins voters and freeholders significant influence over the final results.

“I’ve heard people say that adopting charter changes via ordinance somehow cuts the public out of the process, but nothing could be farther from the truth,” says Sutton. “In the ordinance process, all it takes is one qualified objection to any proposed change, and that change is off the table. At an election, a simple majority vote carries the day.”

She said city officials hope city voters and property owners see this process as an opportunity to make their voices heard.

“All I ask is that people use their leverage constructively,” Sutton said in the press release. “Please don’t say no just for the sake of saying no, and don’t just tell us what you don’t want–tell us how the draft could be changed to satisfy your objection. Review the draft, share your opinions, and let’s all work together to get to a final charter update that is good for the whole community.”

The proposed charter draft, along with a variety of informational resources, may be accessed at: www.bit.ly/ElkinsCharterUpdate

The public hearing and first reading of the adoption ordinance will be Nov. 9.

The second and final reading of the adoption ordinance (and council can only adopt changes with no remaining objections) will be Nov. 19.

On March 2, 2021, the Elkins city election ballot can include charter changes objected to during and not adopted by ordinance process.

April 1, 2021 is the effective date of changes adopted via both ordinance and election.

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