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Charter amendments discussed

During the City of Elkins Municipal Election, held on March 2, city residents will have the opportunity to vote to amend the city’s charter. The city’s current charter was enacted in 1901 and set the foundation upon which the City of Elkins, as we currently know it, exists. There is no doubt that many things have changed since 1901, and therefore it is appropriate to amend the city’s charter to keep up with those changes. The Elkins City Council approved various, non-controversial amendments to the Charter that the public did not object to. These non-controversial changes were necessary and made the City Charter more relevant for city government in the twenty-first century. Three other Charter amendments, which were objected to by the public, will be placed on the election ballot and decided on by the voters on March 2.

Elkins City Council was involved in a long learning process with respect to the procedures and various options available to amend the City’s Charter. Using the insight gained in my position as a Council member, I thought it may be helpful to offer my thought process and rational with respect to the Charter amendments. I proceed in this regard, by listing the three proposed charter amendments, as they will appear on the ballot, followed by my thought process and where I stand on the proposed amendments.

Question 1: Proposed City Charter Sections 1.04 and 3.08

These City Charter amendments would adopt a Manager-Mayor form of government in accordance with WV State Code 8-3-2 and assign certain administrative authority to the city manager effective April1.

If the Manager-Mayor form of government is adopted to replace the city’s current form of government (the Mayor-Council plan), the governing and administrative authority of the City of Elkins would shift from the Mayor and Council, to the Council and a City Manager, respectively. Under both plans, the City Council is still the governing body of the city. The big difference is that the administrative authority (i.e. the power to administer the law) shifts from elected officials to an appointed City Manager.

I am not fundamentally opposed to the idea of a Manager-Mayor form of government. However, in my opinion the current endeavor by City Council to amend the Charter to adopt a Manager-Mayor form of government is premature. I have been involved in all official conversations related to the proposed adoption of the Manager-Mayor form of government, but have seen no evidence that adopting the a Manager-Mayor form of government will produce any additional benefits than the Mayor-Council Plan that the City currently has in place. Perhaps it may, or perhaps it won’t; the point is that I have not seen any evidence that would suggest that the city, the size of Elkins, should spend in excess of $100,000 to create a position and amend its current form of government, when we have no proof that those changes will provide any additional benefits than the form of government we currently have in place. In my opinion, the city would be better served to assign additional administrative authority to the Mayor, and allow the Mayor to serve a more direct role in administering the business of the city.

Moreover, in my opinion, it is important for a person holding administrative authority over city business to be held accountable to the residents of the City of Elkins. In the current form of government the Mayor and City Council share administrative authority over city business. The Mayor is up for election every two years, and Council members are up for election every four years, on a staggered basis. If the majority of City residents feel that the persons representing them in the administration of city business are not doing a good job, they can hold them accountable and elect them out of office. If the Manager-Mayor form of government amendment is adopted, the City Manager would be given shared administrative authority with City Council. However, the City Manager does not answer directly to City residents for his/her job performance. Rather, the City Manager answers to City Council, who then answers to the City residents. This could be problematic in that the people ultimately affected by the City Mangers’ decisions (which may not be in line with City Council’s directive) have no direct ability to hire or fire the person that is making decisions on their behalf.

Further, I suspect many residents feel that the timing of the Manager-Mayor form of government charter change is dubious, given that the majority of the discussion and public input occurred during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a time when the City was not having public meetings and social distancing was the norm. To be fair, the discussion of the Manager-Mayor form of government began prior to the existence of COVID-19. However, in my opinion, once COVID-19 occurred and our normal way of life, and manner in conducting City business was changed, our discussion of amending the City’s form of government should have been postponed. Those discussions could have been taken back up once Citizens were able to meaningfully participate in the discussions, without the restrictions imposed as a result of COVID-19.

In my informed opinion, the Manager-Mayor form of government is not fundamentally a bad idea. However, the City of Elkins has no basis to justify moving from its current form, to the Manager-Mayor form of government and to expend the enormous costs necessary to do the same.

Question 2: Proposed City Charter Sections 1.09

This City Charter amendment would pledge full compliance with West Virginia open government and freedom of information laws.

In short, this charter amendment should be adopted. The City of Elkins, like all other West Virginia municipalities are bound by existing state laws related to open meetings and freedom of information. Adopting this charter amendment will not change how the City of Elkins operates in any manner. The adoption of this charter amendment is largely ceremonial in that it memorializes within the City’s founding document the very notion that the City is bound to operate in an open and transparent manner. This is a good thing and should be welcomed by the City’s residents.

Question 3: Proposed City Charter Section 2.02

This Charter amendment would increase the term of the Mayor from two to four years effective with the term beginning April 1, 2023.

If the city residents decide to keep its current form of government (the Mayor-Council form of government), the City should also keep the Mayor’s term at two years. In my opinion this is necessary because it holds the person holding the Mayor’s position accountable to the City’s conduct every election period. Every two years the city conducts an election in which the Mayor and one of two council seats, in each ward of the City’s five wards is voted on. If in the majority of the voters opinion the Mayor and Council member are performing well they are reelected. If on the other hand they are perceived as not performing well their position is filled by someone new. Therefore, a fundamental safeguard to ensure that the city government is operating in a manner consistent with the will of the people is that elections occur every two years in which elected officials are held accountable. The Mayor, who is the most visible member of city government, needs to be held accountable to the people every election period to insure that the person holding that position is performing in a manner that is consistent with what the majority of city residents’ desire.

This letter is not made to sway your vote one way or another. Rather, this letter is offered as a perspective to the Charter amendments from a member of City Council that has been deeply involved in the discussions from the beginning and may have some insights as a result of that participation. Thank you for your consideration.

Robert C. Chenoweth is a First Ward Elkins City Council representative.

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