Elkins City Charter: Analysis and Recommendations
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Although Elkins was originally incorporated in 1889, the current Elkins City Charter dates only to 1901. That year, when the city absorbed what had been the separate city of South Elkins, a revised charter was needed for the new, larger city. The city’s charter has not been amended since then.
The following sections present some of the most significant opportunities for improving the 1901 Elkins City Charter. Each section also lists possible means of addressing these opportunities. The listed options are are based on practices in wide use among West Virginia municipalities, especially municipalities that have updated their charters more recently than Elkins.
This document addresses the following opportunities for improvement:
Opportunities for Improvement
- Opportunity 1: Diffused Administrative Authority
- Opportunity 2: Council Representation Only at Ward Level
- Opportunity 3: Codify Recognized Financial Best Practices
Opportunity 1: Diffused Administrative Authority
The 1901 charter implements what West Virginia Code calls the “Mayor-Council” plan of municipal government. Per state code, this means that—in Elkins—the mayor and the council are, together, the governing body and administrative authority. The mayor has almost no independent authority; all important decisions must be made by the council.
The Mayor-Council plan, also known as a “Weak Mayor/Strong Council” plan, presents the following challenges:
- Administrative authority is held by 10 part-time council members.
- There is no single individual with administrative authority (e.g., hiring/firing, direction of resources, adherence to long-term strategy, etc.) overseeing all city functions. Instead, five coequal administrative officers manage the operation of their departments and report to council.
- Decisions requiring exercise of administrative authority are time consuming, requiring review by relevant council committees and ultimate approval by council.
- Administrative decision making by elected officials may introduce political concerns.
- Elected council members/mayors will not necessarily possess skills or training suitable for the administration of a city organization with approximately 85 employees, an annual General Fund budget of around $5.5 million, and water and sewer utilities with combined budgets of about $5 million.
- Elected officials lack the assistance of professional support by an individual accountable for government-wide/citywide policy, goal setting, and outcomes.
- Election turnover may result in policy inconsistencies, drastic changes to long-term plans and goals, and other unpredictability for residents and business owners.
In addition to the Mayor-Council plan described above (and which Elkins currently uses), state code allows four other “plans” or organizational structures for West Virginia municipalities:
- Strong Mayor Plan: The council is the governing body; the mayor is the administrative authority. The mayor has much more independent authority under this plan. (Examples: Buckhannon, Beckley.)
- Advantages: Unifies administrative authority in one individual, simplifying decision-making and other administrative actions.
- Disadvantages: Locating administrative authority in an elected official may introduce political concerns into decision making. City’s administrative authority would answer only to voters, not to council. Elections would not necessarily produce mayors with skills and training for administering a city the size of Elkins.
- Commission Government Plan: The city is run by a five-member commission, with each commissioner in charge of a separate aspect of city operations (e.g., a commissioner of public affairs, a commissioner of finance, a commissioner of public safety, etc.) The members of the commission appoint a mayor from among their ranks. (No West Virginia cities use this option.)
- Advantages: Elected officials get to focus on specific areas of the city government.
- Disadvantages: Dividing administrative authority over specific areas of city government among individuals may confuse chain of command and encourage competition and rivalry between those areas. Politics may be introduced into administrative decisions; elections will not necessarily produce commissioners with suitable skills and expertise.
- Manager Plan: The council is the governing body, and a manager appointed by the council is the administrative authority. Under this plan, councilors select one of themselves as mayor. All city employees report to the manager. (Examples: Clarksburg, Fairmont.)
- Advantages: Unifies administrative authority in one individual, simplifying decision-making and other administrative actions (e.g., hiring/firing, direction of resources, adherence to long-term strategy, etc.). Manager is hired based on merit and qualifications for city administration. Reduces intrusion of political concerns in administrative decision making. Council is able to concentrate on policy and strategy instead.
- Disadvantages: Centralizing administrative authority in one staff member reduces direct council oversight of some matters, a change from longstanding Elkins practice. In the short term, hiring a city manager represents a net increase in expenses, although many cities find that professional management makes them more cost-effective in the long run. A mayor that is appointed rather than elected directly may reduce residents’ sense of having strong representation.
- Manager-Mayor Plan: This plan is identical to the “Manager Plan” (above), except that the mayor is elected by the public into that office specifically, not appointed from among council members. (Examples: Bridgeport; Lewisburg.)
- Advantages: Similar to “Manager Plan,” above. A directly elected mayor may contribute to residents’ feeling they have access to/accountability for an official with significant influence and authority.
- Disadvantages: Similar to “Manager Plan,” above.
West Virginia has 234 municipalities. Elkins is the twentieth largest, based on population. Out of the 30 largest West Virginia municipalities, here is the distribution of the various plans of government structure described above:
- Manager/Manager-Mayor: 16
- Strong Mayor: 6
- Mayor-Council (like Elkins): 8
Opportunity 2: Council Representation Only at Ward Level
Under the 1901 Elkins City Charter, the “governing body” of Elkins is a ten-person council, with two councilors elected from each of the city’s five wards. To represent a certain ward, a candidate must live in that ward. Only people who also live in that ward may vote for that candidate.
Elkins is one of the only West Virginia cities that uses such a strict form of ward-based representation. Other approaches in use in West Virginia include:
- At large: Councilors may live anywhere in the city and are voted for by all city voters.
- At large/ward: Councilors must live in a certain ward but are voted for by all city voters.
Some cities use option 1 or 2 exclusively in electing councilors. Other cities use a combination of options 1 or 2.
The Elkins council’s current structure and ward-based election practices present the following challenges:
- A 10-person group, by its sheer size, may present obstacles to reaching consensus.
- Ward-based election may prevent highly qualified people from serving on council (e.g., when they don’t wish to unseat one of their current ward representatives but still feel motivated to serve).
- Election by ward may influence some members away from a citywide perspective and toward focusing only on the concerns of their own wards.
- Reduce the overall number of council members.
- Advantages: Streamlines deliberation process and enables faster consensus. Reduced payroll costs. (Council members are currently paid $600/month. In lieu of payment, councilors have the option to receive PEIA health insurance coverage.)
- Disadvantages: City residents may feel less represented. Reduced number of councilors will increase workloads of remaining members, including receiving and addressing all constituent concerns from their wards. If current number of committees is also maintained, members would have to sit on more committees/attend more meetings/do more committee work.
- Shift to at-large-only representation. (All council members would be nominated/elected citywide.)
- Advantages: Excludes no potential candidates simply because of place of residence. Expanded field may result in more vigorous campaigns. Councilors would have no reason to feel limited to one ward’s issues and concerns. Citywide election of all council candidates might result in a more engaged citizenry.
- Disadvantages: Might result in one or more wards having no residents seated on council. (This concern could be addressed by requiring nomination by ward but still allowing citywide election.) Facing citywide election would result in increased workload for each councilor, e.g., citywide work and campaigning by members.
- Shift to some mix of ward and at-large representation. One option might be to stipulate 1 member nominated/elected in each ward (similar to current approach), with 1-5 members elected at-large.
- Advantages: Enables wider pool of candidates than strict ward-based representation (depending on number of at-large members allowed). If less than 5 at-large members are allowed, council’s payroll costs would be reduced. At-large councilors would have no reason to feel limited to one ward’s issues and concerns. Citywide election of some council candidates might result in a more engaged citizenry.
- Disadvantages: Might save less money than simply cutting the number of councilors but keeping the current ward-based nomination/election. City residents may feel less directly represented if no at-large councilor is elected from their ward and that other wards are unfairly over-represented.
Elkins, with its 10-person council, has a population of about 7,000. Below is a list of council structures used by cities with comparable population levels:
- Population: 8,149
- Council: 5 at-large members
- Charles Town:
- Population: 5,259
- Council: 8 at-large/ward members (nominated by ward, elected citywide)
- Population: 6,284
- Council: 5 at-large members
Opportunity 3: Codify Financial Best Practices
Budgeting and administering adopted budgets are two of the most central responsibilities of a city government. Unfortunately, the 1901 Elkins City Charter provides almost no framework for these vital processes. What little it has to say about financial matters is no longer relevant to the city’s current structure and to its required functioning under state code.
- An uncodified budget process could be changed from year to year, reducing predictability and complicating transparency for and participation by the public.
- Without explicit budget procedures in the charter, it might be more difficult for council to hold administrative officers accountable for misappropriations or other financial misfeasance.
- Without a clear delineation of responsibility for goals/strategy vs. technical budgetary decision making, council members lacking administrative knowledge and/or driven by political concerns may reduce the effectiveness of budget planning.
Many West Virginia cities codify the following financial practices in their charters:
- Publication of an annual “budget message” by the Finance Committee
- Preparation of the annual budget by the city manager (to be approved by council)
- Preparation of a five-year capital program by the city manager (to be approved by council)
Following are some advantages and disadvantages of these possible solutions.
- Advantages: These provisions contribute to stronger transparency and continuity by requiring a predictable process each year. The manager can ensure that departmental budgets comply with council’s five-year strategic plan, and performance during budgeting can be taken into account during the evaluation process for administrative officers. Oversight of a five-year capital program by a manager enables translation of strategic policy goals into technical budget components by a trained professional.
- Disadvantages: It is important that any financial practices codified in a city charter not be so restrictive and detailed that future administrations will have difficulty following them.