Elkins Resuming In-person Meetings

Elkins, W. Va., September 10, 2020: Elkins Common Council and its committees will return to in-person meetings effective immediately, Elkins City Clerk Jessica Sutton announced today. A memo from Mayor Van Broughton explained that the first in-person committee meetings will be held next week, while the regular council meeting of September 17 will be postponed to September 24 to allow time for the installation of protective plexiglass barriers in council chambers.

“Council members have made clear that they feel they cannot deliberate effectively unless they are in the same room together,” says Sutton. “We haven’t found a workable way to enable that while also broadcasting the meetings audibly for the public, so there is no way forward but to return to fully in-person meetings as soon as possible.”

City of Elkins suspended in-person meetings upon Mayor Broughton’s declaration of a citywide state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 virus pandemic on March 17. The primary obstacle to in-person council meetings was the size of the group that is required to be in attendance.

“Elkins has a ten-person city council, which is one of the largest in the state,” says Sutton. “There are also six city staff members who are required to attend council meetings. That’s a big crowd to try to space out six feet apart while still enabling the meeting to be audible online, and of course we had to accomplish both of these goals  given the governor’s orders and recommendations to stay out of public spaces as much as possible.”

Instead, and in accordance with advice issued by the West Virginia Ethics Commission, which administers the state’s open meetings laws, virtual meetings were held on the Zoom platform, with councilors, staff, and members of the public all joining remotely. However, this approach encountered some technical glitches and one “Zoom bombing” attack, and councilors increasingly expressed interest in being able to deliberate in person.

In response, the city clerk’s office ordered installation of a software solution that would bring the signal from the council-chamber sound board into a computer for broadcast over Zoom.

“The purpose of this solution was to enable councilors to deliberate in council chambers while letting the public listen to clear audio of the meeting online,” says Sutton.

This solution still didn’t solve the social distancing problem raised by a full meeting of council and its administrative officers, however, so at first the plan was to use this approach only for meetings of council’s three-member committees. However, the first two committee meetings that used this solution were plagued by audio issues.

“Councilors are intent on meeting in person, and we just don’t have a good way to enable them to do so while making clear audio of the meeting available online,” says Sutton. “So, starting next week, we’ll go to full in-person meetings once again, with both meeting participants and audience members able to gather in council chambers.”

Staff will continue to explore how to make the meeting audio available online, but the city’s experience so far suggests that this may not be feasible without significant additional cost.

The mayor’s memo outlines safety precautions that will be taken for these in-person meetings. These include maximum occupancy limitations for council chambers to ensure all audience members may be seated six feet apart, restrictions against entry by people suffering from the symptoms of or having tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, and a requirement that face coverings be worn by all meeting participants and audience members except when addressing the meeting.

“It’s frustrating to have to leave the virtual option behind for the time being, because I think that offers a really good opportunity for attendance by people who otherwise might not be able to come to council meetings,” says Sutton. “The good news is that this change will eliminate a major distraction and allow council to focus even more strongly on doing the people’s business.”

Charter Change Survey Results

In support of council’s consideration of possible changes to the city’s charter, staff created and released an online survey on the Survey Monkey platform. The survey was promoted via the following channels:

  • Paid advertising in the Inter-Mountain
  • Multiple press releases, all of which were published in the Inter-Mountain and on the city website
  • Two TV news stories mentioning the survey’s availability
  • “Sidebar alert” with link to survey on every page of the city website
  • Multiple Facebook posts
  • Messages sent to the city’s email newsletter list
  • Direct email to various city stakeholders
  • Dissemination by Elkins Main Street and the Elkins-Randolph Chamber of Commerce email lists

The survey was available from August 14 through September 2. During that time, 115 people responded to the survey. The survey had 10 questions, which are summarized below (actual question wording on the survey was different than shown below; the questions are reprinted in full in the attached results). All questions were optional, meaning that respondents did not have to answer every question to submit their answers.

  1. Are you a resident/property owner/business owner, etc.?
  2. Name and address. (These answers are not included in the attached results.)
  3. Which charter-change background materials have you reviewed?
  4. Should the charter be changed?
  5. What aspects of the charter should be changed?
  6. If you oppose changing the charter, why?
  7. What form of government do you prefer for Elkins?
  8. Should council be resized?
  9. Should council be restructured?
  10. What else would you like to share about possible charter changes?

Here is an overview of some of the results:

  • There was strong support for “updating” the charter. Almost 69% of respondents either strongly agreed or agreed that “the Elkins City Charter should be updated” (question 4).
  • More than 80 percent of respondents want council to “update obsolete sections” of the charter (question 5). The next most popular category of changes was “restructure/resize council” (54 percent), followed by change the form of government (49 percent).
  • When asked what form of government they preferred for Elkins (question 7), 39 percent wanted to keep the current form, followed closely by the 35 percent who favored some form of manager-based government (i.e., either Manager or Manager-Mayor). Least popular was the idea of adopting a Strong Mayor Plan (26 percent).
  • Regarding changing the size of council (question 8), most respondents want to reduce it (50 percent). Those who wanted to keep it the same as it is now numbered 35 percent. Only 14 percent wanted a larger council.
  • When asked (question 9) about changing the structure of council (ward vs. at-large representation, ward vs. at-large voting, etc.), 39 percent favored the current strict ward-based qualification and election. The next largest group, at 19 percent, wanted to keep ward-based representation but adopt at-large (citywide) voting for all council seats. At 16 percent, those who want a mix of at-large and ward councilors came in third place.

It is important to keep in mind that these results cannot be described as representative of public opinion. Unlike a poll, respondents were not randomly selected, so they cannot be said to represent a cross-section of the community. This survey would not have been available, for example, to people lacking internet access. Also, despite the efforts made to publicize the survey, it is still possible that some potential respondents may not have heard about it.

The results may be downloaded in PDF form here.

If you prefer viewing the survey results online, you may do so by clicking here.

Draft Charter Update

The download links in this post have been updated to point to the latest version of the draft charter, released Monday, August 31. The linked document includes a change log to show major changes between the last version and this one.

Click here to download a draft of an updated charter for the City of Elkins, prepared by council’s charter attorney, Tim Stranko, based on council’s discussion at its August 20 meeting.

This version has not been proposed or endorsed by council.

The final draft of any charter update endorsed by council will differ from this one. Even if council members agree that they wish to endorse in principle the changes stipulated in this draft (and council has not yet reached consensus on any changes), at least some further editing would be necessary to eliminate any inconsistencies or other typos. Obviously, if council rejects or modifies any of these provisions or inserts new ones, the final version would differ even more significantly from this one.

The purpose of this draft is to provide a concrete reference point for ongoing deliberation about what might be included in a more formal draft. This draft is being released in hopes of providing a clearer picture of what a charter update might look like and to help the public conversation become even more specific about the changes city residents do and don’t support. For more information about the charter-change process, please visit: www.bit.ly/ElkinsCharterUpdate.

The table below shows the most significant changes included in this draft. This table may not be easily readable on a mobile device. It is also included in the PDF of the draft charter update, which may be downloaded here.

1901 CharterAttached Draft Charter
Stipulates a plan of government similar to what W. Va. state code now calls the Mayor-Council Plan (also known as “weak mayor/strong council”). Council and the mayor, as a collective group, are the city’s governing and administrative authority, with the mayor holding almost no independent authority.Does not adopt a new plan of government. Mayor is assigned some additional supervisory authority (see below).
Lists more than 80 “corporate powers and duties of council.”Replaces list with the provision that City of Elkins has “all the powers now or hereafter granted to municipal corporations and to cities of its class by the Constitution and general laws of the State.” (1.02)
City council has 10 members, two from each of the city’s 5 wards. Members are elected by the voters of the wards they represent.Council would still have 10 members. Five of these would represent (and be required to live in) each of the city’s five wards. The other five would be “at-large” members who could live anywhere in the city. Both Ward and At Large Councilors would face election by all city voters. (2.02)
City elections held in March of odd-numbered years.City elections would be held in June of odd-numbered years. (2.02)
Mayors serve two-year terms.Mayors would serve four-year terms. (3.01)
Clerk and treasurer are appointed to two-year terms. All other department heads (i.e., fire chief, operations manager, and police chief) are at-will employees.All five administrative officers would be at-will employees. (Clerk: 3.06; Treasurer: 3.07)
Clerk is acting mayor in mayor’s absence or during vacancy in mayor’s office.Council selects one of its own to preside at meetings in mayor’s absence or to serve as acting mayor during extended absence. In case of vacancy in mayor’s office, council appoints a new mayor to serve until the next election. (3.05)
Mayor is assigned supervisory authority over the police chief.Mayor is assigned supervisory authority over clerk and treasurer. (Clerk: 3.06; Treasurer: 3.07)
Contains no procedure for preparation and presentation to council of the annual budget.Codifies a budget process, including an annual budget message and a five-year capital plan. (4.04, 4.05) Budget is supervised by the Finance Committee. (2.09)
Doesn’t stipulate any standing council committees.Stipulates three:
• Finance
• Rules and Ordinances
• Economic Growth and Development

Council/the mayor may create more committees as needed.

Charter Change Q&A Tuesday, Sept. 1

Elkins Common Council will host an in-person Charter Change Q&A event at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 1 at the Phil Gainer Center. Council’s charter-change attorney, Tim Stranko, will present the findings of his analysis of the current charter, which was last updated in 1901. Then council will take questions and comments from in-person attendees.

Stranko’s presentation at Tuesday’s Q&A will present three main categories of possible charter changes. The first category consists of updates to charter provisions that have been rendered obsolete by changes in state law and the evolution of the Elkins city government. These updates would simplify and modernize the charter without significantly affecting the form and functioning of the city government.

The second category in Stranko’s presentation will be possible changes to council size, elections, and representation. While Elkins uses strict ward-based representation and election processes, many other West Virginia cities have at least some “at-large” council members or have ward-based members face citywide election.

“At-large representation and citywide voting might increase voter turnout and enable a wider range of people to run for office,” says Sutton. “State code is not very specific about these aspects of city councils, so there are a few possible options.”

The third category includes possible changes to the structure of the city government. State law authorizes West Virginia cities to use one of five government structures, or plans. Under the current plan, council holds both governing and administrative authority and the mayor has almost no independent authority (i.e., what state code calls the Mayor-Council Plan). Other available plans assign administrative authority to either a mayor (i.e., Strong Mayor Plan) or a city manager (i.e., the Manager or Mayor-Manager plans).

“In the city’s strategic plan, council set a goal of evaluating the feasibility of adopting a city manager form of government,” says Elkins City Clerk Jessica Sutton. “That evaluation is ongoing, so now is the time for the public to speak up if that is something they support or oppose.”

The Q&A session will follow the governor’s orders and public health guidelines for reducing the risk of transmitting the COVID-19 virus. Attendees must wear masks at all times inside the building and will be seated six feet apart from each other. A total of 72 members of the public will be admitted.

Due to technical obstacles, the Q&A will not be livestreamed. A written summary of questions and answers will be posted to the city’s website.

“We don’t currently have the tools to livestream an event with so many different potential speakers and ensure that viewers would be able to hear all questions and answers,” says Sutton. “If anyone isn’t comfortable attending an in-person event or has a schedule conflict, they can email ideas and concerns to me and, if time permits, I’ll present them to council and Mr. Stranko during the Q&A.”

Sutton pointed out that there are additional options for public input.

“Our online survey will be available through September 2 and people can also submit public comments for any upcoming council meetings,” she says. “Also, before council can finally adopt a charter by ordinance, state law requires a formal public hearing. Right now, the earliest that could happen would be sometime in October.”

Sutton emphasized the importance of public input during this process.

“Changing the city’s charter could profoundly affect Elkins for generations. It’s vital that councilors hear as much input as possible so they can draft a charter update that everyone can feel good about.”

For a link to the online survey and more charter-related information, including the text of the current charter, a charter-change FAQ, and other background resources, please visit: www.bit.ly/ElkinsCharterUpdate.

Charter Change: City Manager Costs and Tenure

During council’s ongoing consideration of possible updates and changes to the city charter, councilors requested information about the potential costs and likely tenure of a city manager in Elkins. Tim Stranko, the attorney retained by council to assist with the charter-change process, has prepared a memo answering these questions.

Mr. Stranko’s research finds that, in West Virginia cities employing city managers, the annual salary range is $75-130,000, with the average for a West Virginia city being $89,035.  According to a study by the American Society for Public Administration, “the average tenure of a city manager has been “lengthening over the decades” to 6.9 years.” Attached to his memo is a report from the International City/County Management Association that looks at the question of tenure of city managers in more detail.

Mr. Stranko also presents specific information from several West Virginia cities that employ city managers. Click here to access the memo.

Restructure Council?

Last in a series of four articles about the charter change process

Last week, Elkins Common Council began public deliberations on possible changes to the city charter. This week, the City of Elkins is running a series of articles providing background and contextual information about the charter-change process. You can find more about this process, including an analysis of the current charter and charter change FAQs, here: www.bit.ly/ElkinsCharterUpdate.

How big should council be? How should council members be elected? How should representation be configured?

These are some of the other questions council is wrestling with as members deliberate toward possible changes to the Elkins City Charter, which has not been updated since 1901. (more…)

Change Our Government Structure?

Third in a series of four articles about the charter change process

Last week, Elkins Common Council began public deliberations on possible changes to the city charter. This week, the City of Elkins is running a series of articles providing background and contextual information about the charter-change process. You can find more about this process, including an analysis of the current charter and charter change FAQs, here: www.bit.ly/ElkinsCharterUpdate.

One of the most important questions facing council during this process is whether to alter the basic structure of the city government. State code allows West Virginia municipalities to be structured under five different plans. Each of these plans has advantages and disadvantages. (more…)

What is a Charter—and What Does Ours Say?

Second in a series of four articles about the charter-change process.

Last week, Elkins Common Council began public deliberations on possible changes to the city charter. This week, the City of Elkins is running a series of articles providing background and contextual information about the charter-change process. You can find more about this process, including an analysis of the current charter and charter change FAQs, here: www.bit.ly/ElkinsCharterUpdate.

The role of a city charter is similar to that of a nation’s constitution. The charter stipulates the structure, authority, and basic operating rules of a city government. A city’s charter also describes the terms, election/appointment process, and core responsibilities of city officials. (more…)

The Charter Update Process

First in a series of four articles about the charter-change process.

Last week, Elkins Common Council began public deliberations on possible changes to the city charter. Because changes to a city’s charter can have profound effects on that city, it’s important that members of the public understand the process so they can provide informed input. Today through Friday, we’re running a series of blog posts providing background and contextual information about the charter-change process. (You can find more about this process, including an analysis of the current charter and charter change FAQs, here.) (more…)

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