In November, Mount Vernon residents will vote on whether or not they wish to elect a commission to create a city charter. This is the third and final part of a series which aims to answer some of the most important questions surrounding the vote, defining what a charter government might look like in Mount Vernon and how it might affect city government moving forward.
To read part one of the series – “What is a charter government?” – click here.
To read part two of the series – “The pros and cons for Mount Vernon” – click here.
MOUNT VERNON – While Mount Vernon residents will vote on whether or not to elect a commission to create the city’s first charter in November, the concept of a charter government is not novel in Ohio.
There are 188 cities in Ohio with charter governments, along with many more villages. Garry Hunter, legal counsel for the Ohio Municipal League (a non-profit organization that serves city governments across the state), estimates that around 60 percent of Ohio’s cities have charter governments.
Adopting a charter form of government has impacted different cities in different ways, however.
Worthington city manager Matt Greeson believes that a charter has benefited his city of 13,000-plus. He cited the professionalism in city government required for a growing community like his own, which would not have been possible without a council-city manager form of government.
Meanwhile, Nelsonville city manager Charles Barga detailed a far different experience with his city’s charter. Barga said there has been discontent for years within his city about the balance of power within its council-city manager form of government. Barga believes that one day, city residents will likely vote the charter out of existence as a result.
The third and final part of this series will look at why a charter government has or hasn’t worked for other Ohio cities and will discuss whether or not Mount Vernon officials believe the charter issue will realistically pass in November.
‘It’s been a huge benefit to us’
For Lee Yoakum and the City of Delaware, which had 40,000 residents at the 2010 census but has likely grown by 5,000 since then, having a charter has benefited the city in multiple ways.
Delaware has a council-city manager form of charter government, where the city manager serves as the ‘CEO’ of the government while council passes legislation and city ordinances.
Yoakum, who is Delaware’s communications director and has worked with the city for 14 years, said that having a charter has allowed Delaware to adapt to rapid growth in recent years.
In a council-city manager form of charter government, cities like Delaware can hire professionals to serve as the city manager and fill other city offices. Under statutory government, the mayor and city office-holders are elected and are not required to have a professional background in city government.
This level of professionalism is needed for growing cities, Yoakum said.
“The manager-council form of government provides the strong administrative skills of a professional manager with the legislative skills of elected council members,” Yoakum said. “As cities and municipalities grow and develop and the responsibilities grow and develop, the manager form of government has become a more popular form to use, just because of the professional skill set that’s required to run most cities these days.”
Yoakum also noted how a charter government “allows politics to kind of be checked at the door,” as the city manager reports to council and council is chosen by residents in a nonpartisan election.
“I can’t stress it enough, just not having politics play that big of a role – you know we see it daily in media, in just about everything we do in life, and I think it really helps the City of Delaware because of the position it has right now,” Yoakum said.
“It’s been a huge benefit to us and our hats are off to the city leaders of the 1940s and 50s who had the good foresight to put this form of government in place.”
Greeson, who has served as Worthington’s city manager for over 10 years, said that professionalism in local government has helped Worthington both in times of population growth and stagnancy.
“I think it helps to have a strong and effective staff, strong and effective managerial leadership, and also strong policy-making leadership in council at any time,” Greeson said.
The City of Shelby’s charter follows the ‘strong mayor’ form of government, which is most similar to what Mount Vernon has in place now with a statutory government. Shelby also still uses the civil service form of promotion for city employees, which is typically a statutory government characteristic.
Shelby mayor Steven Schag praised the charter system of government for its flexibility, as it allows local government to make decisions quicker than it would be able to under state rule.
For example, in a charter government, a city can amend its project bid approval process by delegating the approval of smaller project bids to commissions designed specifically for that function. Statutory law requires that bids of all sizes go through multiple levels of approval before being put into action, which causes cities to sometimes move slower on projects.
“I think it does allow more flexibility, it enables city government to be more nimble,” Schag said. “There’s enough to navigate through, and they talk about the speed of government almost laughingly, so I think being a charter government allows us to get things done in an efficient manner.”
Having a charter government also allows cities to form commissions to deal with specific aspects of a community, whereas those commissions might not be able to be created under statutory law.
Yoakum said that this has benefited Delaware because it helps serve specific community needs and also allows city residents to become more involved in local decision-making.
“One of the commissions we have is a Civil Service Commission that specifically handles our public safety employees’ employment and hiring issues just like that,” Yoakum said. “So it’s nice to have those kinds of citizen servants serving on commissions like that, which our charter allows us to do.”
Yoakum believes that a charter government has allowed Delaware residents to shape their city’s future, and that it is “a very representative form of government.”
“It is community government truly at the grass-roots level, in that your community’s constitution, so-to-speak, is being robustly thought through by your residents, by your neighbors, by your friends,” Yoakum said.
“It’s also important to keep in mind that, as our charter is established, any decisions made by the charter commission will ultimately have to be approved by the city council. So it provides for neighbors and residents to have their concerns heard, or to make a suggestion. But ultimately, council has to vote on it. So you have the community aspect of it and then there’s a legislative aspect of it, too. Both are involved and both play a role.”
Greeson suggested that Mount Vernon voters put deep thought into the issue before voting in November, as a charter could greatly impact the way their city government operates. He ultimately advocates for a charter form of government because of its flexibility and localized approach.
When framing a charter, the elected commission (which is made up of city residents who are not employed by the city) could choose to completely change how city government operates. It could also choose to keep things largely the same. That freedom of choice, however, lies at the core of the charter concept.
“Having a charter has, I think, provided Worthington the flexibility to kind of craft a structure that’s best for this community,” Greeson said. “I think that’s the value of a charter process for Mount Vernon, it gives you a chance to reflect on, ‘What’s the future for our community?’ and ‘How do we best organize to optimize it?’”
‘I think eventually they’ll probably do away with the charter’
Not all cities are happy with their charter government, however.
Nelsonville, a city of just over 5,000 in Athens County, currently has mixed feelings on its charter.
Barga, who has been the city manager for 18 months, said that the city has had a charter since 1994. Residents have expressed concern recently, however, because some have grown wary of the council-city manager form of government and wish to return to a strong mayor form.
Barga said that some citizens want to be able to choose who runs their city government. Under its current structure, council appoints the city manager, whereas statutory government would allow residents to vote for their mayor.
“I think it’s basically stemming from (that fact that) the citizens want to be able to control who they vote into that position, or have a say into who they vote into that position,” Barga said. “And doing away with the charter would allow that.”
While council could move to amend the charter so that the city could go back to a strong mayor form of government (without having to get rid of the charter and go back to statutory rule), Barga is not sure that all residents are aware of this possibility.
Nelsonville has also faced consistency issues in its current form of government. Since the charter was enacted in 1994, city council has gone through nine different city managers.
“The average period of time for a city manager is probably a little over a year. They do not seem to be ever satisfied with who the city manager is or what they’re doing,” Barga said of city council.
Barga believes that city council's tendency to micromanage the city manager office has likely contributed to such high turnover rate.
“I think, from my own experience and just talking to employees that have been here a while, and for whatever reason in this city, council likes to micromanage the office,” he said. “So I think it’s probably a combination of, either they get frustrated because the city manager isn’t doing what they think they should be doing and they want to get rid of them, or the city manager gets tired of being micromanaged and says ‘I’m done with it.’”
Barga said that as city manager, he is consistently taking calls from council members who are pushing their own agendas.
“It makes it tougher. Because some council members just leave me alone and let me do my job. (But other) council members are always calling or stopping in and saying, ‘You need to do this’ or ‘I saw this, you need to do this,’ and another council member will tell you something different,” Barga said.
“And again, I work for all seven of them, so the biggest thing I have to keep telling them is that it’s all fine and dandy, you may want me to do something, but do four of the seven council members want me to do it?”
According to 2015 news reports, city residents had become dissatisfied with council as well, as they felt it did not fairly represent the population in decision-making matters. Residents expressed that they wanted one person to go to for answers – the mayor – and that they wanted to elect that person themselves, which would be possible under statutory government.
The issue of Barga’s residency has also become a concern for Nelsonville citizens, he said. Because he was hired to be the city manager, he did not have to live within the city (he lives in Athens County, but not Nelsonville). This has drawn ire from some residents, Barga said, who want their chief decision-maker to live within city limits.
While Barga has heard from select vocal residents about their concerns with the current charter form of government, he is not certain whether the majority of Nelsonville residents would vote to take the charter out of existence right now if they had the option.
However, he did believe it would eventually happen.
“I think eventually they’ll probably do away with the charter,” Barga said. “I do think so, it’s just my gut feeling."
‘We haven’t seen the need’
Meanwhile, Athens – a city of over 36,000 which neighbors Nelsonville – has never had a charter. Like Mount Vernon, the city has stayed statutory since the beginning.
Its residents are fine with that.
“There’s probably several reasons as to why,” Athens mayor Steve Patterson explained. “One, we haven’t seen the need. Things seem to be working very well here in the City of Athens under statutory rule. Another piece of the equation is that we – and this is arguable – we are one of the oldest municipalities in the State of Ohio. And being an established municipality going back to 1797, even though we were just a frontier, as the city grew and became a village and then from a village to a city in the 1920s, being a statutory city fit with Athens.”
Patterson believes that the issue of forming a city charter came up in Athens years ago, but nothing came of it. Largely, the people there are content because of the current city government’s ability to push the limits of statutory law and its ability to have an openly communicative relationship with residents.
“Within the Ohio Revised Code, we can’t weaken Ohio Revised Code where it speaks to the powers of municipalities – statutory cities – but you can enhance them,” said Patterson, who has served as mayor since 2016. “And we’ve done that often, where we are enhancing the Ohio Revised Code.”
Athens City Council has created various commissions and councils to serve unique community purposes, Patterson said, which have been legal under statutory law. For example, the city created a Shade Tree Commission, made up of seven volunteer residents, which makes sure that new property developments within the city fit the city’s Tree City USA standards of having “so many trees provided per 1,776 square feet of space.”
The city has been able to adopt ordinances that fit specific community needs as well, including the Wellhead Protection Ordinance, which regulates activities that can take place within the city’s Wellhead Protection Area.
Patterson noted that the city has been creative in making localized ordinances where statutory law falls silent.
“There’s several other (instances) where we’ve created protections that go above and beyond the Ohio Revised Code, if it’s an area in which the ORC is silent,” Patterson said.
Patterson said that in his time working for the city (which included four years on city council before being elected as mayor), the city has not considered adopting a charter.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time and it hasn’t always been successful, but it is successful,” Patterson said.
Another reason why Athens residents have stayed content with statutory rule is the level of engagement between the city and residents on decision-making issues.
One of the most highly-touted benefits of a charter government is that it allows city residents to shape their own government, adding a layer of grassroots democracy that is not present in statutory government. However, because of the open and communicative relationship between Athens city administration, council and its residents, Patterson feels that the city’s residents are satisfied with their level of input.
“I think that we have all learned to work together,” Patterson said. “We don’t have a divisive council necessarily; that doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with each other, but there is compromise. And I’m the kind of mayor that does engage with council, as well as the rest of the community, in trying to find solutions.”
Patterson cited the city’s steady relationship with Ohio University and its willingness to hear public opinion on the restructuring of the city’s next comprehensive plan as examples of why the government’s open nature has allowed it to stay statutory.
In looking ahead to Mount Vernon’s November vote, Patterson advised city residents to think deeply about their decision of whether or not to elect a charter commission.
“I think, again, it’s all community-based. If a community really feels that there is a more efficient way to streamline the way things are done, and that they’re not satisfied with the current form of government, that the option is there to change,” Patterson said.
“It’s something that should not be taken lightly. And I think that the preservation of home rule, as our rights as home rule municipalities to act with a fair level of autonomy, is vitally important. And I think we do that well down here in Athens, but I can understand where other municipalities might feel like they don’t have enough and should consider a charter.”
On November 6, Mount Vernon residents will vote on whether or not to elect a charter commission.
As of Wednesday, 23 residents had sought out petitions from the Knox County Board of Elections to run for commission. Only one had the 50 signatures (of city residents who are registered voters) required to be an officially recognized petition on the November ballot, according to the Board of Elections. Residents have until September 4 to officially file petitions.
Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Mavis said that the city would like to see 25 names up for commission on the ballot, as voters will be asked to choose 15 of them after answering the question “Shall a commission be chosen to frame a charter?”
Mavis said he is not sure whether or not the vote will pass in November. He did say that if the vote passes and a commission is elected, it might take more than one year to pass the first charter.
Multiple city officials also expressed uncertainty with whether or not they felt the vote would pass, and many cited timing as the main reason why. Citizens have told council in recent meetings that they feel this issue is moving too quickly and that the public is uninformed on all sides of the charter concept. This could affect voter turnout, Mavis said.
“I was reading some of the emails that we have and one of the allegations by at least a few people was that, yeah, this is moving too quickly,” Mavis said.
Those who support the charter idea, however, believe the issue isn’t moving quickly enough.
“I have faith in our electorate. I honestly think it was a mistake the council didn’t put it forth last year,” council member Chris Menapace said. “I think our electorate is intelligent enough to understand the importance of the tax levy as well as the charter government. I understand they want to focus on one, but I think we could have gotten both passed last year. So yes, I remain optimistic.”
Mavis said that, given how long it would likely take for a charter to pass if a commission were approved, the city might as well begin the process now.
“The weakness probably is getting all those people educated to the point of what they have to do and what will be expected of them, and I think that it would be nice if we did have more time to do that. But on the other hand, at some point, we want to move this project ahead and you have to do it with the election year,” Mavis said.
“So if you get it on in November, it’ll be another year before you even get the charter. If it gets defeated, it’ll be another year after that. So it may take a while. The people down in Newark said they had theirs up three times before it got passed.”
The mayor cited the city’s efforts to inform the public on the issue by bringing in expert panels over the summer, although some were more well-attended than others.
“We had a panel similar to what we had a month ago, we had a group come in and frankly, there didn’t seem to be a lot of excitement generated by that,” Mavis said. “This last one, I think we had about 50 people. The room was pretty packed.”
Even if a commission were elected, Mavis believes that things might not change drastically within city government.
“One of the things, and I’ve picked this up just from attending the meetings and talking to people, people that are receptive to the charter want to keep basically the same government that we have now – the strong mayor, council type,” Mavis said.
“And they can do that. That’s the other thing people don’t understand, you actually could have a charter government just like we have it right now. You could write it up just like it is, submit it to the voters and they approve it, people wouldn’t know the difference.”
The real challenge of the commission would likely not be getting elected in November, Mavis said, it would be gaining voter support for a charter in the coming years. He said that the commission would have to educate the public on the charter’s structure and campaign hard for it to be passed, and that doing so might take multiple attempts.
“I’m not so confident that I think this would pass on the first time,” Mavis said. “I think eventually, though, I think Mount Vernon will support a charter. And I think it may take one or two times to get a charter that would be acceptable, but I think eventually they will. Now, is that going to be three, five or more years? Maybe.”