FAQs: City Charter Update Process
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What’s a city charter?
A city charter is the establishing document of a municipality. A charter is comparable to a constitution, in that it establishes the structure, authority, and basic operating rules of a city government. A city’s charter also stipulates the terms, election/appointment process, and core responsibilities of elected and appointed officials. A charter is distinct from a city’s code of laws; laws are adopted separately, following the procedures laid out in the charter and/or state code.
What are the essential components of a city charter?
One of the most important things established by a city’s charter is the form of that city’s government and what categories of officials make up that government. Charters may also describe a city’s boundaries (and those of its wards or other political subdivisions), establish election dates, impose any additional requirements (beyond those in state code) for the passage of certain kinds of ordinances, describe procedures for removing elected officials from office, and other similar structural or procedural matters.
What does “administrative authority” mean?
In every city government, some person or group of persons must hold “administrative authority” over the city government. A city’s “administrative authority” is responsible for day-to-day administration (e.g., hiring/firing, directing and supervising staff, ensuring adherence to rules and regulations, complying with internal policies, etc.). In some cities, the administrative authority may be held by the mayor or by a city manager. In Elkins, council and the mayor are, collectively, the administrative authority. No single individual in the Elkins government holds administrative authority over the city.
What does “governing body” mean?
The main purpose of a city government is, of course, to govern its city: that is, to pass laws, establish long-term goals, set policies, design strategy, and so forth. In West Virginia cities, this governing authority is required by state code to rest with a group of elected officials. In practice, this is always a group known as a council, although state code also authorizes a plan of government organization in which this authority is held by a group known as a city commission. (No West Virginia city currently uses the Commission Plan of government organization.) These councils or commissions are referred to in state code as each city’s “governing body.”
How may city governments be structured, according to state code?
West Virginia code authorizes five “plans” of organization for municipal governments.
- Mayor-Council Plan: 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. (This is the current structure of the Elkins city government.)
- 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. (Example: Buckhannon, Charleston.)
- 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. (Not currently used by any West Virginia city.)
- 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 their number as mayor. All city employees report to the manager.
- 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.
How common are these different plans of government in West Virginia?
Elkins is the 20th largest West Virginia city, by population. The following list compares Elkin’s plan of government with those of the 30 most populous West Virginia cities.
- Manager/Manager-Mayor: 16
- Strong Mayor: 6
- Mayor-Council (like Elkins): 8
- Commission: 0
What are the pros and cons of the Mayor-Council Plan?
The Mayor-Council Plan is the plan currently in use in Elkins.
- Advantages: The governing body and the administrative authority are all elected and thus directly accountable to voters. The requirement that a majority of council agree on all important actions reduces the likelihood of hasty decisions and may help prevent undue influence by one individual.
- Disadvantages: There is no individual with authority over/accountability for citywide government and the accomplishment of citywide goals set by council. Administrative decisions by elected officials risks introducing political considerations. Elections will not necessarily produce individuals with skills and training 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.
What are the pros and cons of the Strong Mayor Plan?
- Advantages: Unifies administrative authority in one individual, simplifying decision-making and other administrative actions.
- Disadvantages: Locating administrative authority in an elected official introduces 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 like Elkins.
What are the pros and cons of the Commission Government Plan?
- Advantages: Elected officials focus on and may gain expertise in specific functions of the city government.
- Disadvantages: Dividing administrative authority over specific areas of city government among individuals may confuse the chain of command and encourage competition and rivalry between those areas. Politics is introduced into all administrative decisions; elections will not necessarily produce commissioners with suitable skills and expertise.
What are the pros and cons of the Manager Plan?
- 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.
- 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.
What are the pros and cons of the Manager-Mayor Plan?
- Advantages: Similar to “Manager Plan,” above. A directly elected mayor may contribute to residents’ feeling of being well represented by giving them access to an official with significant influence and authority and who feels accountable to them.
- Disadvantages: Similar to “Manager Plan,” above.
How are council members elected in West Virginia cities?
State code is relatively unspecific about how councils are structured and how council members are qualified and elected, leaving cities some latitude. In organizing a council and elections therefor, the following questions must be considered:
- Who will each council member represent? That is, the whole city, or parts of the city (e.g., wards)?
- Who may vote for each council member?
The following structures and processes for qualifying and electing city councilors currently exist in West Virginia:
- Ward-based representation and election: 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 this system).
- At large representation and election: Councilors may live anywhere in the city and are voted for by all city voters.
- At large election/ward representation: Councilors must live in a certain ward but are voted for by all city voters.
Some cities pick one of the above structures and use only that one. Other cities use a mix of the above structures. Again, state code imposes no restrictions against using any of the above options or a mixture thereof.
Why does it matter when an election is held?
Election dates can influence campaigning and voter turnout and may also affect costs.
If an election date falls during the winter or early spring, cold weather may complicate campaigning and reduce voter turnout, especially by elderly or disabled persons.
When city elections are held on a different date from county-run elections (e.g., primaries and the general election), they must be administered by the city government. Costsavings might result from moving a city’s election date to match the state primaries or general election, because then the election can be administered by the county clerk, avoiding duplication of effort.
However, shifting city election dates to match state and national elections may introduce partisan politics into non-partisan city elections and increase votes cast by low-information voters. Also, in cities with ward-based representation and/or election, election administration would be complicated by the fact that all other races on the state and national ticket are organized by county districts, which are different from wards.
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Why is Elkins council considering changing our city charter?
The current charter was adopted in 1901 when Elkins absorbed South Elkins and contains many out-of-date provisions. Council also wants to evaluate if Elkins might benefit from changing the organizational structure of the city government (e.g., by shifting from the Mayor-Council Plan to one of the allowed city-manager-based forms of government).
Who is the governing body in Elkins? Who holds administrative authority?
The Elkins mayor and 10-person council are, collectively, the city’s governing body and administrative authority. Elkins mayors have almost no independent authority; all important decisions must be made by a majority vote of council. Elkins mayors chair but may not vote in council meetings, unless it is to break a tie.
What are some the important elements in the current Elkins City Charter?
The Elkins City Charter contains the following major provisions:
- Elkins uses the Mayor-Council Plan of government organization (the mayor and council hold governing and administrative authority, collectively)
- The mayor presides over council meetings but has no vote except to break a tie
- City elections are the first Tuesday of March in every odd-numbered year
- Mayors serve two-year terms
- Councilors serve four-year terms
- Two councilors are elected from each of the city’s five wards, to staggered terms
- The following officers may be appointed by council: “a chief of police, city attorney, superintendent of streets, commissioner of waterworks, city assessor, city collector and treasurer, and city clerk.”
- City and ward boundaries
What are some examples of out-of-date provisions in the 1901 charter?
- Because West Virginia mayors used to play a judicial role now provided by magistrate court, there is extensive language in the 1901 charter about the rules of procedure for Elkins mayor in authorizing arrests, ordering imprisonment, and levying fines—none of which a West Virginia mayor now has authority to do.
- The 1901 charter makes the city clerk a “conservator of the peace,” a role similar to that of a deputy sheriff but which, today, may only be filled by sheriffs with the consent of a judge.
- The 1901 charter provides a long list (84 items) of specific authorities of council. Although this is a long list, it is not possible to imagine every kind of decision or authority a city council might need to exercise in the future. To simplify matters, most modern charters simply state that councils “shall provide for the exercise and performance of all rights, duties and obligations allowed or imposed on the City by law,” or words to that effect.
- There are extensive provisions in the 1901 charter concerning the duties and authorities of the office of city assessor, a position rendered obsolete by changes in state law since 1901. Instead of a “commissioner of waterworks” and a “superintendent of streets,” the duties of these positions have been folded into the relatively recently created position of operations manager, which is not mentioned in the charter.
- The charter calls for the city clerk to perform and maintain records of many financial processes which are now customarily assigned to city treasurers or finance directors.
How are council members elected in Elkins?
Two council members are elected from each of the city’s five wards. Each ward’s representatives are elected only by voters who live in their respective wards.
Council members serve four-year terms.
How much are Elkins council members paid?
Elkins council members are paid $600 per month. In lieu of this salary, they may instead receive coverage under the same PEIA health insurance plan offered to city employees. If they elect to receive health insurance coverage, they receive no pay.
How are mayors elected in Elkins?
Elkins mayors may live anywhere in the city and are elected by voters living anywhere in the city. Mayors serve two-year terms.
How much are Elkins mayors paid?
Elkins mayors are paid $20,000 a year.
What would change if Elkins adopted a city-manager-based form of government?
Elkins currently uses the Mayor-Council Plan of government. Under this plan, the council and mayor hold governing and administrative authority, collectively. The mayor has almost no independent authority, and all important decisions fall to or must be delegated by a majority vote of council. Out of the 30 most populous West Virginia cities (Elkins being twentieth), only 8 use this plan of government.
Among those 30 cities, 16 use one of the two city-manager-based plans authorized by West Virginia code. Both the Manager Plan and the Manager-Mayor Plan centralize administrative authority in a city manager appointed by council, which can then hold the manager accountable. This simplifies administrative decision making and allows council to concentrate on setting policies and goals. The only real difference between these two plans lies in how mayors are selected. Under the Manager Plan, councilors pick one of themselves to serve as mayor; under the Manager-Mayor Plan, mayors are elected directly to office by the voters.
One of the major changes that would result from Elkins adopting a manager-based form of government has to do with the city’s five administrative officers. Right now, 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 (i.e., the city clerk, city treasurer, fire chief, operations manager, and police chief) manage the operation of their departments and report to council. In a manager form of government, all of these officers would report to the manager and would all become at-will employees. (The city clerk and city treasurer are not currently at-will employees, as they are appointed to two-year terms.)
Why is council considering lengthening the mayor’s term from two to four years?
With two-year terms, mayors have barely settled into and learned their role before they must face the voters again. Some mayors have found that this distracts from the discharge of their duties; it can also lead to fast turnover, which may, in turn, be needlessly disruptive.
Why is Elkins considering changing the time of the election?
It has been mentioned from time to time that Elkins might benefit from moving the date of city elections (currently the first Tuesday in March of odd-numbered years) later in the year, such as to June. The main reason this change has been suggested in the past is to reduce weather-related obstacles to campaigning and voter turnout.
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What is a city manager?
City managers help bridge the gap between politics and administration. The mayor and council set policy for the community and pass legislation, while the city manager provides the administrative skills to make those laws and policies a reality.
In West Virginia, city managers serve as the chief administrative authority of the city government, comparable in many respects to a CEO at a private company. City managers oversee all city staff through a chain of command and ensure that council’s laws, policies, and goals remain at the forefront of day-to-day decisions and operations. Typical duties of a city manager include:
- Overseeing the preparation and administration of the annual city budget
- Making hiring and termination decisions about department heads
- Managing and coordinating the daily operation of city departments and services
- Making recommendations to the mayor and council on a variety of issues, including budgets, personnel needs, and prospective projects and their costs
- Ensuring completion of reports and studies requested by elected officials
- Collaborating with local stakeholders on community/economic development initiatives
- Responding to resident questions and concerns
What would a city manager cost?
City manager salaries vary a great deal by location and in consideration of the background and training level of each candidate. According to ZipRecruiter, the national median salary for city managers is $93,373. The West Virginia median salary for city managers is $89,035.
Will hiring a city manager save money for city taxpayers?
In the short term, hiring a city manager will not save money for Elkins taxpayers. One of the most obvious costsaving measures that might accompany the creation of a city manager position would be a reduction in the size of council. However, as council members only make $7,200 a year, it would not be possible to reduce the size of council enough to completely cover the cost of a city manager.
The benefit derived from city managers is more typically realized in the long term. Over time, a trained professional accountable for citywide budget management, policy and strategy execution, and related areas of responsibility will likely be able to increase efficiencies, reduce duplication of effort, improve cooperation, sustain long-term goals and otherwise find areas for savings and increased value.
Who holds a city manager accountable since it is not an elected position? How is balance of power maintained?
City managers are hired by council. Sometimes they are hired as at-will employees, meaning council can terminate their employment at any time for any reason; other times they are hired on contracts, with renewals (or non-renewals) also falling to council. (Whether on contract or not, any public employee can be removed for misfeasance and/or criminal activity.)
Currently, the city is administered by five coequal administrative officers who report directly to council. Some of these are at-will employees; some are on contracts. Under a city manager structure, all of these officers would report to and be held accountable by the manager.