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).

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