MOUNT VERNON — Four members of Mount Vernon City Council provided reasons Tuesday for a recent 5-2 vote to allow voters to determine if a charter commission should be formed — with three of the four indicating they strongly favor a charter in the future for true “home rule,” and one saying he is open to the idea.
Their comments came during a charter commission meeting held at the Knox County Memorial Building’s Ball Room, facilitated by the Study of American Democracy at Kenyon College and its director, David Rowe. The council members who appeared on stage were Christopher Menapace (R-at large); Matt Starr (R-at large); John Francis (R-Second Ward); and Jeff Gottke (R-Fourth Ward). Sam Barone (D-First Ward) and Janis Seavolt (R-at-large) were not in attendance. Nancy Vail (R-Third ward) did not appear on stage but Rowe read her statement. Seavolt and Vail voted against legislation to ask voters to consider a charter commission.
Menapace said he supported legislation to place the question on the ballot to give people more local control over their government, offering there is no better way to do that than place a question involving formation of a charter commission before the voting citizens of Mount Vernon. He also said that having served as a fire chief for two different cities — one with a charter government and one a statutory government — there was far more speed and efficiency in working under a charter.
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Starr described his view on a charter, as coming from a councilmember who ran a mayoral campaign and as someone concerned with business processes, wants a form of government that unties the hands of a city, as has happened to Mount Vernon in the recent past. He said the civil service process has become particularly burdensome on some personnel issues.
Francis said he received comments that instead of those concerned about the city continually complaining about how the city operates, it was better to do something about it. The fact that people have expressed optimism about a city charter commission is “the first time I have seen the citizens involved in their government,” he said.
Gottke offered that he was not pro-charter, at least not yet, but is pro-charter commission.
“I think it creates a conversation,” he said.
And as for those who are concerned about a “power grab,” the “power grab” that would occur is taking local city control away from the state, he said. However, Gottke did offer some concerns about how a charter form of government and a faster pace that would result in approval of city projects, might have potential to negatively impact checks and balances.
Asked later what he meant, Gottke said that as a high school history teacher, he believes in a strong system of checks and balances. The more that city business is rushed, without the people being made aware, the more potential there is for those checks to be lessened, he said.
In her statement, Vail mentioned some of the checks and balances of Mount Vernon’s statutory form of government that could be at risk if a charter commission — and ultimately a charter — move forward with voters. One is the balance that comes from boards and commissions, made up of community volunteers appointed by the mayor and approved by council legislative votes, who contribute their expertise and effort on recreation, community beautification, a Board of Zoning Appeals and other city needs.
“Let’s not risk spoiling it by thinking the unknown might be better,” Vail wrote. “And do not be misled to think the elected charter commission is only to study this idea; this charter commission will be writing the charter, the rules by which you would then live, to be presented on your 2019 ballot.”
Gottke said the “why now?” question on charter commission formation has to do in part with Mayor Richard Mavis, who is in his 23rd year as mayor and does not plan to seek re-election next year. Yet the city population is expected to double by 2050, he added, which creates opportunity for economic efficiencies that move the city forward in a global economy.
After the meeting, Mavis said he favors charter commission formation and seeing where it leads.
“But this is an opportunity for us to develop our own constitution,” said Mavis, a Democrat. Though the city’s government “is good, I think it could be better with home rule,” he added.
A charter commission creation would give the 15 elected residents the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of a new government. There may even be an opportunity to take often-divisive party politics out of city government by making seats non-partisan, he added.
“Personally, I think we would have more participants (in city government) if you didn’t have to say if you are a ‘D’ or an ‘R,’” Mavis said.
The city last considered a city charter in 1963 and 1964, before voting down the presented charter. A charter commission had also been considered in the early 1950s but was rejected by voters.