Council Releases Draft Charter Update

Timing Enables Adding Disputed Changes to the March 2021 Ballot

Elkins, W. Va., October 9, 2020: Elkins 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 today. Under the plan released by the city clerk’s office, councilors will be able to adopt uncontroversial charter changes on November 19 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,” says Elkins City Clerk Jessica Sutton. “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 councilors 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,” says Sutton. “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 today includes a public hearing on November 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 between today and the close of the hearing on November 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 explains that 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.”

City officials hope that 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,” says Sutton. “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

Important Dates:

  • November 9, 2020: Public hearing/first reading of adoption ordinance
  • November 19, 2020: Second and final reading of adoption ordinance (can only adopt changes with no remaining objections)
  • March 2, 2021: Elkins city election (ballot can include charter changes objected to during and not adopted by ordinance process)
  • April 1, 2021: Effective date of changes adopted via both ordinance and election

Charter Change Survey Results

In support of council’s consideration of possible changes to the city’s charter, staff created and released an online survey on the Survey Monkey platform. The survey was promoted via the following channels:

  • Paid advertising in the Inter-Mountain
  • Multiple press releases, all of which were published in the Inter-Mountain and on the city website
  • Two TV news stories mentioning the survey’s availability
  • “Sidebar alert” with link to survey on every page of the city website
  • Multiple Facebook posts
  • Messages sent to the city’s email newsletter list
  • Direct email to various city stakeholders
  • Dissemination by Elkins Main Street and the Elkins-Randolph Chamber of Commerce email lists

The survey was available from August 14 through September 2. During that time, 115 people responded to the survey. The survey had 10 questions, which are summarized below (actual question wording on the survey was different than shown below; the questions are reprinted in full in the attached results). All questions were optional, meaning that respondents did not have to answer every question to submit their answers.

  1. Are you a resident/property owner/business owner, etc.?
  2. Name and address. (These answers are not included in the attached results.)
  3. Which charter-change background materials have you reviewed?
  4. Should the charter be changed?
  5. What aspects of the charter should be changed?
  6. If you oppose changing the charter, why?
  7. What form of government do you prefer for Elkins?
  8. Should council be resized?
  9. Should council be restructured?
  10. What else would you like to share about possible charter changes?

Here is an overview of some of the results:

  • There was strong support for “updating” the charter. Almost 69% of respondents either strongly agreed or agreed that “the Elkins City Charter should be updated” (question 4).
  • More than 80 percent of respondents want council to “update obsolete sections” of the charter (question 5). The next most popular category of changes was “restructure/resize council” (54 percent), followed by change the form of government (49 percent).
  • When asked what form of government they preferred for Elkins (question 7), 39 percent wanted to keep the current form, followed closely by the 35 percent who favored some form of manager-based government (i.e., either Manager or Manager-Mayor). Least popular was the idea of adopting a Strong Mayor Plan (26 percent).
  • Regarding changing the size of council (question 8), most respondents want to reduce it (50 percent). Those who wanted to keep it the same as it is now numbered 35 percent. Only 14 percent wanted a larger council.
  • When asked (question 9) about changing the structure of council (ward vs. at-large representation, ward vs. at-large voting, etc.), 39 percent favored the current strict ward-based qualification and election. The next largest group, at 19 percent, wanted to keep ward-based representation but adopt at-large (citywide) voting for all council seats. At 16 percent, those who want a mix of at-large and ward councilors came in third place.

It is important to keep in mind that these results cannot be described as representative of public opinion. Unlike a poll, respondents were not randomly selected, so they cannot be said to represent a cross-section of the community. This survey would not have been available, for example, to people lacking internet access. Also, despite the efforts made to publicize the survey, it is still possible that some potential respondents may not have heard about it.

The results may be downloaded in PDF form here.

If you prefer viewing the survey results online, you may do so by clicking here.

Charter Change Q&A Tuesday, Sept. 1

Elkins Common Council will host an in-person Charter Change Q&A event at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 1 at the Phil Gainer Center. Council’s charter-change attorney, Tim Stranko, will present the findings of his analysis of the current charter, which was last updated in 1901. Then council will take questions and comments from in-person attendees.

Stranko’s presentation at Tuesday’s Q&A will present three main categories of possible charter changes. The first category consists of updates to charter provisions that have been rendered obsolete by changes in state law and the evolution of the Elkins city government. These updates would simplify and modernize the charter without significantly affecting the form and functioning of the city government.

The second category in Stranko’s presentation will be possible changes to council size, elections, and representation. While Elkins uses strict ward-based representation and election processes, many other West Virginia cities have at least some “at-large” council members or have ward-based members face citywide election.

“At-large representation and citywide voting might increase voter turnout and enable a wider range of people to run for office,” says Sutton. “State code is not very specific about these aspects of city councils, so there are a few possible options.”

The third category includes possible changes to the structure of the city government. State law authorizes West Virginia cities to use one of five government structures, or plans. Under the current plan, council holds both governing and administrative authority and the mayor has almost no independent authority (i.e., what state code calls the Mayor-Council Plan). Other available plans assign administrative authority to either a mayor (i.e., Strong Mayor Plan) or a city manager (i.e., the Manager or Mayor-Manager plans).

“In the city’s strategic plan, council set a goal of evaluating the feasibility of adopting a city manager form of government,” says Elkins City Clerk Jessica Sutton. “That evaluation is ongoing, so now is the time for the public to speak up if that is something they support or oppose.”

The Q&A session will follow the governor’s orders and public health guidelines for reducing the risk of transmitting the COVID-19 virus. Attendees must wear masks at all times inside the building and will be seated six feet apart from each other. A total of 72 members of the public will be admitted.

Due to technical obstacles, the Q&A will not be livestreamed. A written summary of questions and answers will be posted to the city’s website.

“We don’t currently have the tools to livestream an event with so many different potential speakers and ensure that viewers would be able to hear all questions and answers,” says Sutton. “If anyone isn’t comfortable attending an in-person event or has a schedule conflict, they can email ideas and concerns to me and, if time permits, I’ll present them to council and Mr. Stranko during the Q&A.”

Sutton pointed out that there are additional options for public input.

“Our online survey will be available through September 2 and people can also submit public comments for any upcoming council meetings,” she says. “Also, before council can finally adopt a charter by ordinance, state law requires a formal public hearing. Right now, the earliest that could happen would be sometime in October.”

Sutton emphasized the importance of public input during this process.

“Changing the city’s charter could profoundly affect Elkins for generations. It’s vital that councilors hear as much input as possible so they can draft a charter update that everyone can feel good about.”

For a link to the online survey and more charter-related information, including the text of the current charter, a charter-change FAQ, and other background resources, please visit: www.bit.ly/ElkinsCharterUpdate.

Charter Change: City Manager Costs and Tenure

During council’s ongoing consideration of possible updates and changes to the city charter, councilors requested information about the potential costs and likely tenure of a city manager in Elkins. Tim Stranko, the attorney retained by council to assist with the charter-change process, has prepared a memo answering these questions.

Mr. Stranko’s research finds that, in West Virginia cities employing city managers, the annual salary range is $75-130,000, with the average for a West Virginia city being $89,035.  According to a study by the American Society for Public Administration, “the average tenure of a city manager has been “lengthening over the decades” to 6.9 years.” Attached to his memo is a report from the International City/County Management Association that looks at the question of tenure of city managers in more detail.

Mr. Stranko also presents specific information from several West Virginia cities that employ city managers. Click here to access the memo.

Restructure Council?

Last in a series of four articles about the charter change process

Last week, Elkins Common Council began public deliberations on possible changes to the city charter. This week, the City of Elkins is running a series of articles providing background and contextual information about the charter-change process. You can find more about this process, including an analysis of the current charter and charter change FAQs, here: www.bit.ly/ElkinsCharterUpdate.

How big should council be? How should council members be elected? How should representation be configured?

These are some of the other questions council is wrestling with as members deliberate toward possible changes to the Elkins City Charter, which has not been updated since 1901. (more…)

Change Our Government Structure?

Third in a series of four articles about the charter change process

Last week, Elkins Common Council began public deliberations on possible changes to the city charter. This week, the City of Elkins is running a series of articles providing background and contextual information about the charter-change process. You can find more about this process, including an analysis of the current charter and charter change FAQs, here: www.bit.ly/ElkinsCharterUpdate.

One of the most important questions facing council during this process is whether to alter the basic structure of the city government. State code allows West Virginia municipalities to be structured under five different plans. Each of these plans has advantages and disadvantages. (more…)

What is a Charter—and What Does Ours Say?

Second in a series of four articles about the charter-change process.

Last week, Elkins Common Council began public deliberations on possible changes to the city charter. This week, the City of Elkins is running a series of articles providing background and contextual information about the charter-change process. You can find more about this process, including an analysis of the current charter and charter change FAQs, here: www.bit.ly/ElkinsCharterUpdate.

The role of a city charter is similar to that of a nation’s constitution. The charter stipulates the structure, authority, and basic operating rules of a city government. A city’s charter also describes the terms, election/appointment process, and core responsibilities of city officials. (more…)

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