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.

As mentioned earlier, Elkins uses the Mayor-Council Plan. Governing and administrative authority are held by council and the mayor, collectively; the mayor has no vote on council business except to break a tie and exercises almost no independent authority. Elkins is the 20th largest West Virginia city, by population; out of the top 30, Elkins is one of only 8 that use the Mayor-Council Plan.

Under the Elkins version of the Mayor-Council Plan, there is no single individual overseeing the day-to-day operations of the city government. Instead, there are five coequal department heads (the city clerk, the city treasurer, the fire chief, the operations manager, and the police chief), who are appointed by and report to council. This structure has its benefits, but it can generate confusion on the part of the public concerning chain of command and who to ask for help about specific issues.

One drawback of the Mayor-Council Plan is that elections may not always be won by individuals with skills and experience relevant to the administration of a city organization with 85 employees, a $5.5 million general fund, and water and sewer utilities with a total annual budget of about $5 million. There is also the risk that the political interests of elected officials could influence administrative decisions.

One alternative to the Mayor-Council Plan is to place administrative authority in the hands of a mayor, as in a form of government called the Strong Mayor Plan. Although this plan addresses some of the challenges posed by the Mayor-Council Plan, there is still the risk that elected mayors may not possess the needed administrative skills. As with the Mayor-Council Plan, the Strong Mayor Plan can also introduce politics into administrative decision making. Finally, the Strong Mayor Plan may put council in a relatively weak position, because a “strong mayor” is only answerable to the voters. Just 6 of the 30 most populous West Virginia cities use this plan.

Among the 30 most populous West Virginia cities, more than half (16) use one of the two city-manager-based plans authorized by West Virginia code. Both the Manager Plan and the Manager-Mayor Plan centralize administrative authority in a city manager appointed by council. By separating politics from administrative decision making, both plans address one of the main challenges of the Mayor-Council Plan and the Strong Mayor Plan.

This separation also allows council to concentrate on setting policies and goals while still holding the city’s administrative authority accountable. The only real difference between the two manager-based plans concerns how mayors are selected. Under the Manager Plan, council selects one of its members to serve as mayor; under the Manager-Mayor Plan, mayors are elected directly to office by the voters.

One drawback to a manager-based plan is that, at least initially, employing a city manager will require a redirection of some city resources. Although city manager salaries are negotiated depending on each candidate’s training and experience, a reasonable salary estimate for the manager of a city like Elkins would be around $100,000 annually. Payroll and other costs for a city manager would have to be shifted from other lines in the city budget. (Update: find more information about manager costs here.)

Although adopting a manager-based form of government might justify reducing the size of council, the associated savings (councilors are paid $7,200 per year) would not be enough to cover the entire cost of a qualified city manager. The size of the return on the expense of a city manager would depend on the appointed manager’s ability to help council reduce costs throughout the organization and secure additional revenues over the long term.

Read all of the articles in this series:

  1. The Charter Update Process
  2. What is a Charter—and What Does Ours Say?
  3. Change Our Government Structure?
  4. Restructure Council?
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