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Something Else: Charter review An obscure civic duty

By Eric Marotta | Editor Published: March 14, 2017 12:00 AM
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One of the easiest ways to become involved in one's local government is to volunteer to serve on a charter review commission. Such commissions are reserved for communities such as villages and cities with their own governing documents, or charters.

One's village or city charter outlines things such as what makes elected officials eligible for office, how city or village officials are appointed, what special boards and commissions should be part of city government, among other details.

Every four or five years, a commission is appointed to review the charter and determine if any changes are needed. The commission's recommendations are typically sent to Council, which generally is tasked with deciding whether to put any of those recommended changes on the ballot.

Some charters require commission recommendations be put on the ballot.

I can't say that reading through a city or village charter is as fun as watching cat videos on YouTube, but there are times when discussions among one's fellow residents can be quite fascinating -- at least for those who enjoy the intricacies of debate and government.

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I've never actually served on a charter review commission, but after covering local government for more than 20 years, I've seen them in action (so to speak) and read quite a few news articles about their debates.

In fact, my first year on the job, or thereabouts, introduced me to quite a few things about local government -- including local charters.

At the time, the city I was covering had a united Council, with a mayor in opposition. It seemed as though every time the mayor wanted to do something, Council tried to have its way instead. One time, to cut the budget, the mayor as city safety director ordered fire engines to remain at the fire station on accident calls until a firefighter on scene could determine an engine was really needed.

It cost too much to call firefighters in to fill the gaps every time there was a car accident, the mayor said.

Council was having none of it, and the fire chief was torn between the mayor's instructions and Council's demand he send the engines out.

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As it so happened, under that city's charter, the mayor could not remove a fire chief from office without Council's approval, but Council could fire the fire chief, if members wished.

Another problem with departmental heads arose when Council wanted to get rid of the city's building commissioner.

The mayor refused to fire him, and unlike the fire chief, Council couldn't fire the building commissioner -- so Council cut his pay to zero and the whole thing ended up in court.

There was some lively debate when that town's commission next reviewed their charter.

Other towns have charters which give their mayors virtually complete authority to appoint department heads.

Some towns have decided to get rid of mayoral authority all together by changing to city manager forms of government, where the mayor is more-or-less a figurehead and the real business of administering is handled by an employee who serves at Council's pleasure.

I've seen other interesting debates over the years.

In Macedonia, for example, a charter review commission many years ago decided to go from six to five councilors -- a plan that voters approved. The next charter review commission debated going back to six members.

That plan never made it and Council ended up in a situation where all the mayor needs is two members of Council on his or her side to thwart any action by the mayority.

Under Macedonia's charter, it takes four members of Council to override a mayoral veto, which is impossible with two on the mayor's side.

In Northfield Village, the charter sets no time limit for the mayor to appoint a police chief and Mayor Jesse Nehez, who recently couldn't get Council to support his appointee, put him in charge of the police department anyway -- all within his rights, says Law Director Brad Bryan.

Fortunately, it looks to me like village Council is approaching the situation in a professional manner -- without the loud voices, insults, recriminations and general bad feelings I've seen occur in some other towns.

Bryan recently told me the village is looking for residents who wish to help their town by serving on a charter review commission this year.

Northfield has in the past had problems getting people to participate -- even to the point that seats on village Council have gone without candidates.

But that may be changing: The village recently commissioned a new recreation board, whose members say they want to do a lot of great things.

I'm interested in seeing if a few more residents are ready to step up and be counted.

Eric Marotta: 330-541-9433

Email: emarotta@recordpub.com


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