Welcome

Welcome to the website for the Pine Lake 2010 Charter Review.  If this is your first time here, I suggest reading Welcome and Purpose and How to Comment before going any further.

Consider this site a draft and an experiment.  Tell me what is confusing, clear, what you still need to know.  If you have skills that can help improve the site – let me know (like why on earth isn’t there an option to have a link to a “home” page somewhere prominent so you can get back to the main post page?).  If I waited until it were perfect, you’d never see it.  So here we go.

Elisabeth Shields (aka plcharterreview)
Pine Lake Charter Review facilitation team member and webmaster
August 17, 2010

Charter review teams

Here’s a list of the people who have volunteered for the Charter Review teams, and which parts of the charter they will be working on.  There may be some additions.

Article I: General & powers of city
Nicky Rosenbluth
Mike Stuckey
Article II: Structure of government
George Chidi
Megan Pulsts
Dennis Rotch
Mike Stuckey
Article III: Administrative Affairs
Dave Brachman
Ellen Mintzmyer
Megan Pulsts
Dennis Rotch
Article IV:  Judicial
Megan Pulsts
Veronica Wright
Article V: Elections & removal
George Chidi
Matt Pulsts
Chris Rosenbluth
Article VI: Finance
George Chidi
Jessica Long
Cre Secrist
Article VII: General Provisions
George Chidi
Kathy Jernigan
Matt Pulsts
Dennis Rotch

What is a charter review? What are the issues?

I hope this will be useful for those of you who did not get to the meetings.  I have tried to explain what we are doing at this stage of the charter review; what the issues are that have been brought up by the mayor, city council member and city staff; and what citizens brought up at the meetings.  My interpretations may not be complete or correct, so I hope that others will chime in to add and give their own thoughts.

Elisabeth Shields, September 17,  2010

Charter Review:
What is it?
Why do it?
What are the issues?

Why do a charter review?

The last major charter revision was in 1991.  Form of government changed from Mayor – council (weak mayor) to Mayor – Council (strong mayor).  Some revisions made late 1990s – early 2000s.   There have been several revisions of national and state model charters since them.

While many provisions of a municipal charter are decided at the local level, others are limited by the state constitution and case law.

Our charter needs a periodical check up.  A check up includes 2 kinds of things:

(1)   Review of “points of pain.”  These are the issues causing trouble.  The still have to be diagnosed: what really is the problem (is it a people problem or a charter problem or something else?) and how should it be fixed?

(2)   General scans   – even when there is no known problem, the articles in the charter should be compared to the model charter and other exemplary charters..  What is different?  Is it different for a good reason?  Should the Pine Lake charter be changed or left the same?

What issues have been identified by City Council, the Mayor, and City staff?

Current strains (identified through interviews with elected officials, certain city employees).  These are not necessarily consensus views but sometimes points identified by individuals:

Article I, Incorporation & Powers

  • No known problems will be reviewed anyway

Article II, Structure of government

  • As city affairs have grown more complex, it has become harder for ordinary citizens elected as council and mayor to stay on top of these complexities and to govern while (usually) keeping full-time jobs.  What form of government would be likeliest to provide expertise in city management (municipal finance, public administration, etc) combined with responsiveness to citizen concerns?
    • Currently, we have a Mayor – Council (strong mayor) form of government.  Formerly, Pine Lake had a Mayor – Council (weak mayor) structure, changed to the current system in 1991.  Are there ways we can get more professional guidance with our current form of government, or should we change it?
    • Other possible forms mentioned in the GMA model charter are Council – City Manager (where a professional city manager is the CEO, with Council setting policy and hiring and having the power to dismiss the City Manager), and City Commission (like the DeKalb Commission, but without a CEO: Commissioners run departments and there is no central executive)

Article III,  Administrative Affairs

  • Charter goes into detail about duties to be assigned to Director of Administration in particular.  Is this amount of detail appropriate for charter?
  • Division of labor between mayor and Director of Administration with respect to preparation of budget sometimes unclear
  • As government has assumed more functions in Pine Lake (Downtown Development Authority, capital projects), more authority and responsibility has fallen on Director of Administration.
    • This single official now has far more operational responsibilities than foreseen in the charter.  In a larger city, some of these duties would be split among people who report to the Director of Administration, but in our tiny city, only the Director of Administration and the City Clerk are available for these duties, and the Charter says too many must be done by the Director of Administration.  There is so much detail in the charter that the Mayor can’t split the duties up between the D.O.A. and the City Clerk based on the skills of the people who fill these jobs.
    • More checks and balances need to be introduced.  The Director of Administration has too many direct operational duties to also be the Chief Financial Officer, but the charter says the D.O.A. must be the CFO.   The Council and Mayor have taken interim steps to correct the problem.  The city attorney advises that the responsibilities should be split.   How can the charter be changed so that the problem can be avoided in future?

Article V, Elections and removal

  • Does the removal process in the charter make it too easy to remove elected officials?  Is there a better process that could be used?  Should the city rely only on the recall process for the removal of elected officials? (This is a long-standing concern which has been voiced by a number of current and former elected officials and citizens).
  • Once removed from office, elected officials are barred from ever being elected or appointed again.  Is this desirable?

Article VI, Finance

  • Pine Lake fiscal year is out of sync with revenue cycle.  Council is required to prepare a budget before revenues for the year are known.  (broad consensus to change plus outside expert advice to change FY to start on Sept.1 or Oct. 1)
  • If we change the fiscal year, we will have one 9-month FY in which the books will have to be balanced.  However, only property tax collection falls into that period.  How will the city compensate for that?

Article VII, General Provisions

  • Council member posts: presently, all council members are elected at large.  Could at least some of the posts represent geographic areas of the city?  (longstanding concern voiced by some citizens and some council members)

Also, (and I haven’t identified where this is) – should we change the council work session from the final Tuesday of the month to something like the fourth Monday or Tuesday?  Many people have found it confusing to have council meetings on two different days (the first on Monday, the second on Tuesday), and most calendar reminders can’t be set up for a final week of the month, though they can be for a day in the fourth week.

How to do charter review

Small groups take responsibility for an article of the charter

  • Compare to model charter
  • Identify other cities to look at if desirable
  • Report: summary of findings or recommendations, if any
    • Report should include process and sources used

What could the outcome of the research consist of?

There will be presentations to the public and City Council about how our charter differs from the model charter, and what ideas there are in the model charter and other example charters that might benefit Pine Lake.  For example, there might be:

  • Some changes that seem non-controversial
    • Wording changes
    • Solid agreement that one course of action makes sense
    • Disagreement over one or more known courses of action that are restricted in scope (could be majority and minority report)
    • Recommendations that the underlying issues are broad in nature and require different process
    • Alternative courses of action to be considered

In judging alaternatives, what would council look for?

  • Evidence that alternatives were considered with open mind, such as
    • For each, presentation of
      • Benefits
      • Risks and drawbacks
      • Other considerations that can be classified as neither of the above
      • Description of the process used and sources consulted

What is the timetable?

The public meetings for reporting back were scheduled for September 23 and 25.  It’s taken about 3 weeks longer than expected to get started, though, so we are now looking at meetings in the week of Oct. 18th to report back to the public and City Council.   Council would formally start discussing any changes at the work session on October 26.

Input from public discussion

One person would like to see the charter reflect the uniqueness of Pine Lake rather than a generic document that follows the model of other cities.

One person suggests a process according to a participatory democratic philosophy that would take at least a year to rewrite the charter.

One person asked whether we had decided to rewrite the charter.

There were several suggestions for wider distribution of information and polling the community.

One person noted that Town Meeting is a form of government used in New England.  A work plan is approved twice a year by whoever shows up to vote on it.

One person wanted to add the function of city planner to the charter with provision for a particular role that would enhance the uniqueness of the city and the centrality of water management.

One person said she felt the level of effort should reflect the scope of the issues and the need (several other similar comments).

Several people have asked for guidelines for the discovery groups (which have now been drafted)

“Judicial services can be provided by the County.  The Pine Lake traffic court is ‘fueled’ by a citation intensive policy.  A previous administration’s public safety policy was a disaster and to some extent that failed policy is still in place; albeit at a less intensive level.   Police and court account for over 40% of the budget.  Financial sustainability and lower taxes cannot be achieved unless public safety and judicial are reorganized; substantial savings can be realized. “ (The wording is from Dennis Rotch; I think one other person is in substantial agreement with at least the idea of outsourcing judicial services).

What is a municipal (city) charter?

The explanation in the next paragraph is from the Model Charter of the Georgia Municipal Association. It explains both city (municipal corporation) and municipal charter (or city charter) in Georgia. Municipal charters are governed by the laws of the state in which they are located, so they can be somewhat different from one state to another.  Basically, my interpretation is that a charter should specify the structure by which the other laws of the city are made – who makes the laws (usually at least a city council, often a mayor); how they are elected; what powers the city has (many of which are decided by the state); what the boundaries of the city are; and what the basic administrative structure,  financial machinery, and judicial structure are.  In general, what’s in a charter is meant to be quite long term, with things that might have to change with circumstances being ordinances.  There are gray areas, though.

“Municipal corporations are local governments which are governed by elected officials and which have the power of taxation and possess self-governing characteristics (5).  One distinguishing characteristic of this form of government, however, is that it is created by a charter enacted into law by the state legislature.  The charter establishes the political structure or framework of the municipal corporation, contains a number of detailed provisions granting general or specific powers, divides powers and duties, establishes specific prohibitions, and proclaimes general or specific guides to the proper conduct of local affairs.  Since it is a legal creature of the state, the municipal corporation’s nature and existence can be altered or terminated by the state. (6)”

Footnotes:
5 C. RHYNE, THE LAW OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS 2 (1980).
6 Porter v. City of Atlanta, 259 Ga. 526, 384 S.E.2d 631, cert. denied, 110 S.Ct. 1297
(1989); City of Mountain View v. Clayton County, 242 Ga. 163, 249 S.E.2d 541 (1978),
appeal denied, 440 U.S. 902 (1979); Pierce v. Powell, 188 Ga. 481, 4 S.E.2d 192
(1939).

Source: GMA Model Charter, 2007, http://www.gmanet.com/Assets/PDF/Publications/charter.pdf, accessed 9/7/2010, p. 7.

Report from August 26 Kick-off Meeting

From George Chidi.  I (Elisabeth Shields, aka plcharterreview) have interpolated a few comments, which I have signed.  Anyone present should feel free to comment.

George Chidi’s notes on August August 26, 2010 meeting for Pine Lake Charter Review

About a dozen people attended the meeting Thursday evening at the Pine Lake courthouse. Elisabeth Shields, a former city councilmember opened the meeting with introductions and a statement of purpose, describing the process for determining how the city charter might be changed. Shields presented a multimedia projection showing different governmental forms and the main issues at play.

“The things that are on here right now are the things that we’re starting with,” based on previous interviews with city officials and employees, and interested parties, Shields said. “We’re at a starting point, where we really want to have open minds, not closed minds.”

Bill Cotter asked whether those interviews had been done with a pre-existing set of questions, or if it had been an informal exchange, and asked if a set of, perhaps, 20 questions might be drawn up and distributed to every citizen of Pine Lake. Bill expressed a concern that the process should maximize citizen involvement. A couple of dozen people providing input “doesn’t strike me as a lot of people,” and that greater distribution of information will have a qualitatively different result.

Both Shields and city councilperson Kathie Denobriga responded. Shields said she had asked people what parts of the charter had caused problems in her initial inquiries. deNobriga noted that the arc of the process could be more inclusive than initial meetings, and that the meetings are open and publicized.

Dennis proposed that changes to the city charter be subject to a city referendum.

I noted that we should be realistic about how many people will attend meetings and really grow involved with the process, and that, proportionately, a couple dozen people are a relatively large proportion of the city’s residents.

Kathie then began to dive into the process of change in detail. Kathie noted that there have been two meetings to identify basic issues to be discussed in the charter. Small groups of discover and research teams will then dig into the individual issues identified. These groups will then converge in September, to report and discuss, she said. In October, two council meetings will convene to discuss the findings of the study committees.

The council will hold a town hall meeting on November 11, after its first pass at the results of the study committee. Approval of changes, if changes will be made, will follow, she said.

Assuming the city council approves the changes presented by the committee, the Department of Justice will have to review changes to electoral rules, as will the Georgia Legislature of those and some other changes. Pine Lake’s legislative delegation will be kept in the loop during the process, so that they might be champions for our potential changes, Kathie said.

Dennis expressed a concern that the process of change should take longer, perhaps a year, questioning why things appear, to him, to be rushed. He also asked about the motivations behind proposing changes to the city charter. “What is the council actually planning, since you seem to have an agenda here for what you want?”

[Two people expressed their view that the length of time and level of effort should be appropriate to the scope of the proposed change – Elisabeth]

The individuals on the council have their own ideas about how to change the charter, Kathie replied. The council as a group has not said that there are things to fix, she said, relating the review of the charter to a regular medical physical.

Kathie then dove into the five areas of concern in earnest:

Should we keep the current strong mayor – weak council system [the formal name for this is mayor – council (strong mayor) – Elisabeth], change to a council-city manager system, a strong council-weak mayor system [formal name mayor – council (weak mayor) – ES], or another system entirely? Should we consider creating more administrative controls, such as a chief financial officer reporting to a chief operating officer? How much detail should the charter present on city management positions and other governmental elements? Should we consider changing Pine Lake’s fiscal year to coincide with the receipt of state taxes on September 1? Should we change our electoral system to provide for representation by district?

(Essential elements about the strengths and weaknesses of each of these questions is part of the mind-mapping tool presentation, and the notes are better captured there.) [It’s taking me a long time to turn that mind map into an outline – Elisabeth]

___

I [George Chidi] spoke briefly at the meeting about my concern that Pine Lake, to remain viable long-term as a separate political entity, must be able to demonstrate a clear reason to exist, one that provides suitable advantages to offset the disadvantages of its small size. Governance may be a way to achieve that.

My interest in the charter is twofold. First, I have a longstanding literary curiosity about governance issues, particularly experimental governance.

But my greater interest is a pragmatic one – mercenary. As I mentioned at the meeting, I fear that Pine Lake harbors a serious structural inefficiency — economies of scale work against us. Cities that are ten times our size don’t have to offer ten times as much service. Their leaders don’t have to do ten times as much, nor are they paid ten times as much. Pine Lake has one of the higher property tax rates in metro Atlanta. I believe that the difference between cost in Pine Lake and outside of Pine Lake must come with an articulated advantage. We must be unique, in ways that matter. If we are not, property values will fall until the cost to a home owner or renter is otherwise equal here to that of one in unincorporated Dekalb County. I’m serving on the committee to preserve my investment in my home.

Perhaps we could organize under the New England town hall form of government. Or perhaps we could dedicate ourselves to artistic freedom, or environmental stewardship. Perhaps the court system, coupled with our police force, might provide that advantage. This morning, I was mulling over the possibility of a set of charter articles and bylaws promoting home businesses.

I honestly don’t know. I look forward to meeting with other Pine Lakers to discuss the matter in detail.

Who’s the committee? When is the next meeting?

Dennis asked a good question: who’s the committee and when does it meet?  I approved the comment about an hour ago but don’t see it showing up yet.

There are 3 members of the facilitating committee, Council Member Kathie deNobriga, Karen Bernheimer, and me (Elisabeth Shields).  Kathie and I made the original proposal to City Council which was presented at the Town Hall meeting on August 7 (2010).  Karen volunteered to help us get people involved after the Town Hall meeting.

Editing after publishing: I am using “committee” here with a small “c”.  We are a facilitating team, not an official committee.  City Council authorized this charter review using a community learning process model, which means that the role of the facilitators is to get as many people involved as have the willingness and commitment to do so.  We plan the events; will citizens want to get involved?  We will only know after the kick off meetings on Saturday, August 21 (10 am, Court House), and Thursday, August 26 (7:15 pm, Court House).   If so, then this becomes a citizen-led effort.

What we have done since the Town Hall was to tweak the proposal to Council , get out flyers for people not on the email lists (as proposed at the Town Hall), and set up this website.  I really set up the website, and I have done a good bit of preparation for the Kick-off meetings.

The next committee (facilitation team) meeting, such as it is, is tentatively planned for Friday August 20 at 1 pm in the Court House.  We will be planning the kick-off meetings, the first of which is being held the next day.  Anyone is welcome to come.  It’s tentative because Kathie has had to be out of town unexpectedly.

I heard from Kathie over night; we have moved the meeting to 3 at the Court House.  That is now tomorrow, Friday, August 20.

If you would like to join the facilitating committee, just let us know.

Material in italics added by Elisabeth on Thursday, August 18.

Elisabeth Shields
August 18, 2010

Anyone willing to learn knowledge mapping tools?

Is anyone willing to learn to use a dialog mapping tool called Compendium?  Dialog mapping is a tool for investigating areas which are both technically and socially complex (that is, where people have different perspectives and even different definitions of the words used).  They help keep track of and organize problem solving when there are numerous meetings attended by different people.  The maps are computer based, and the visual nature (kind of like mind maps) help keep material organized in a different way from text.

The particular tool I have in mind is free and open-source, and I have used it before.  It’s called Compendium; it’s been around for about 20 years and has been used by government agencies (NASA) and nonprofit organizations in their planning processes.  Development is mainly based at Open University in the UK.

I am not looking for someone to learn this in time for the kick-off meetings, but would like to know if anyone is interested enough to help develop maps to document our discussions – help keep people on the same page, keep us connected to important resources, etc,.

You can learn more about it here:

Compendium Institute (learn about it and download it)

Wicked Problems & Social Complexity Introduction to the theory (not very academic – pretty practical)
Leave a comment (How to Comment) or send me an email (elisabethshields@ymail.com).

thanks,

Elisabeth Shields
August 17, 2010

Volunteer to write an account of kick-off meeting

Just what it says.  We would like to have someone identified for each meeting ahead of time.

Saturday, August 21, 10 am, Court House

Thursday, August 26, 7:15 pm, Court House

They would be published here and can be informal.

Leave a comment here or email me at elisabethshields@ymail.com