MOUNT VERNON — The director of Kenyon College’s Center for the Study of American Democracy, David Rowe, asked for Tuesday’s public meeting about formation of a city charter commission to be free of a pro-con debate, as that “implies minds are already made up.”
The meeting, held at the Knox County Memorial Building and attended by about 90 community members, was facilitated by Kenyon College.
“It is solely an issue for the citizens of Mount Vernon to decide,” said Rowe, adding that the college would not endorse either the issue of forming a charter commission or any candidates seeking commission posts.
The two speakers, asked by the college to discuss charter vs. statutory governments in Ohio cities, were Garry Hunter, the city attorney for Nelsonville and legal counsel for the Ohio Municipal League, and E. Rod Davisson, a Navy veteran and also an attorney by trade. Davisson, from the village of Obetz near Columbus, served three terms as the village’s elected mayor. He is now the full-time village administrator.
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Part of that is possible because the city increased the threshold requiring that contracts be bid out from $50,000 to $150,000, he said.
“The biggest reward in having a charter for me is our ability to develop economically,” Davisson said. “From the time we (enacted) our charter till now, we have tripled our general fund. It’s bigger than this city’s is, and I’m a village of 4,500. We just landed a 2,000-employee Amazon plant.”
The goal of home rule in Ohio, since it was approved by state Constitutional convention in 1912, is to give people local power without making them sovereign from state government, Davisson said. Power over local self governance became “almost limitless,” while powers over police and fire matters, and public safety and health, are much more limited, he added.
Davisson likened a city charter to a “mini constitution, it’s your ability to create your own rules for your place to the extent you’re allowed.” He was on his village charter commission, he added, and now uses it to his advantage “every single day” to help the village.
Hunter advised city residents not to expect perfection from a charter if one is ultimately approved by voters. Charters can be amended and the charter commission can determine how often charter reviews occur. Charter commission meetings to discuss options and draft a charter within an 11-month period must be publicly advertised meetings with minutes available for public review.
Davisson was asked about whether a statutory form of government with a strong elected mayor, being potentially replaced by a strong council and weak mayor (council president) with a city manager, would allow too much opportunity for council members to influence the city manager, who prioritizes his or her job.
Davisson described that scenario as being “absolutely wrong.”
“You can still have an elected mayor under a charter, we do — my village went from statutory to charter,” he said. “We have an elected mayor. We have a strong mayor form of government, which is exactly what we had before. We had a full-time village administrator when we were statutory, and we have a full-time village administrator now. The mayor can fire me tomorrow if he wants to and we set it up to do it that way.”
Hunter said other forms of government are a strong city manager form with a weak mayor, and one that involves commissioners being in charge. The creation of a charter, however, does not mean the current form of government has to change, he added.
There is real flexibility with a charter government, and yet one more component of that is being able to take the politics out of a council by going from partisan ward seats, pitting Democrats and Republicans against each other, to an all non-partisan, at-large council, he offered.
One audience member asked Davisson what difference the average person would see in city government if Mount Vernon residents were to pass a charter form of government in 2019.
“It won’t (show a difference), I mean in my opinion, at all,” he said. “Most people will go through their lives and never even know what a charter is and whether they have one or don’t have one. I mean it’s super cool, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t change the world overnight.”
He later amended his answer stating the ability to make the village run more efficiently, to be more “nimble” has resulted in great economic gains, but the larger issue is running the government will less bureaucracy.
Following the information session, the public was provided with an opportunity to mingle with charter commission candidates.