Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Is Charter Review Important?

Below is an article I had published in the Cascadia Weekly not long ago. Since then, I'm pleased to report that the City Council has agreed to have City staff prepare three items for Council review and approval, as follows:

1. A Resolution stating that Council policy will be to require holding a public hearing on the subject of Charter Review, at least once every five years, although it could happen more freqeuntly. Council must still approve this Resolution, in some version.

2. Language appropriate for a ballot measure that would consider changing Charter language to gender neutral. Council must approve this in some version before it is submitted to the ballot this year.

3. Information to be brought forward for Council consideration concerning a proposed Code of Ethics covering elected City Council members and possibly other elected officials. This will become a topic of deliberation and determination of what further action might be taken.

All three items respond positively to different aspects of Charter issues, but none will occur without further Council or public deliberations and appropriate voting. Each of these proposed changes represent small, but significant departures from past practice, that should be seen as the cautious first steps that could enable future Charter reviews and revisions to occur more regularly and easily. Stay tuned!
Our City Charter was first adopted over 35 years ago in 1972, and has remained relatively unchanged since then. I think our Charter ought to contain a provision for periodic review by the City Council and the public. Some changes have been made to the Charter, by City Council action and public ballot.

Curiously, there has been resistance to even doing the basic research needed for Council to debate this issue. Until Joan Beardsley came to office in 2006, the Council did not have four members who agreed to have staff research how Charter Revisions could be made! Now, that research has been done and, in early June, a Council work session will determine whether additional action will be considered in time for this year’s ballot.

Charter Changes

From time to time Charter changes have been made, motivated by changes in State law, and clarification necessity. Several public initiatives and referenda have interpreted the Charter inaccurately, which has caused unnecessary confusion and contention. Our Charter is not always very clear in its brevity, and does sometimes require legal opinions for clarification. To achieve more Charter clarity, some sort of regular review is necessary.

Minor Charter changes have been enacted by Council action. Others have been placed on the ballot for the voters to decide, like the appointment of Finance Director. Several other Washington cities have undertaken Charter reviews and changes by various methods. Everett, Tacoma and Vancouver offer good examples of what Bellingham might consider doing in reviewing its Charter. All three cities approved a provision that their Charters must be reviewed every 5 or 10 years.

Methods of Charter Review & Costs

A range of review options exists, from doing nothing to a process that requires electing a Charter Review Committee and submitting their recommendations to a public vote, like Whatcom County did recently. Estimated costs for this latter option range between $20,000 and $220,000, depending upon scope of effort, and excluding any fiscal impacts of changes that might be adopted.

Intermediate options, such as Council review and approval based upon necessity or cosmetics; Council submission of ballot measures; Council review and submission of ballot measures from recommendations of an appointed advisory committee; Public initiative, and others are all possible. Depending upon the Council’s perception of need, each option has both a price tag and an associated staff and public input requirements.

Resistance to Charter Review Proposals

Aside from simple inertia; denials - like the sometimes heard remark to the effect ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’; concerns over costs [including staff time]; potential for political discord; and blind fear of change, there are no reasons for not reviewing our Charter periodically! Are these concerns sufficient to prevent us from beginning a simple and prudent review process? Charters – including our own Constitution - are intended to be living documents that establish the framework for the policies of government, not static monuments to the status quo of long ago. Does simple reference to ‘applicable law’ mean anything that can be understood by the average citizen?

Some people are afraid of what might change, and prefer the status quo because it is the system they are used to. Others fear ‘hidden’ agendas, like changing the form of local government to a Strong Council/City Manager, for example. No system is a universal panacea; about 70% of cities use a form of Strong Mayor system, with the remaining 30% of cities using Strong Council forms of government. Both systems work, but contain different allocations of power. In every case, it is the people -elected representatives and citizens- that make any system work.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Rather than a costly, full scale Charter Review like Whatcom County’s process, I believe there are better options for Bellingham. First, simply decide to have the idea of periodic Charter Review on the November ballot. Such a ballot measure proposed by Council would specify only the frequency for Charter Reviews, leaving the method to be determined by future Councils according to adaptive management principles. The public needs a voice in deciding whether to have regular Charter reviews, and what future changes ought to be made. Let them have it!