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:

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.

Under the 1901 charter, the “governing body” of Elkins is a ten-person council, with two councilors elected from each of the city’s five wards. To represent a certain ward, a candidate must live in that ward. Only people who live in that same ward may vote for that candidate.

Elkins is one of the only West Virginia cities to use such a strict form of ward-based representation. Most other cities allow all city voters to vote for all council members up for election at any given time. Sometimes these cities’ council members still represent specific wards (and must reside in them). Sometimes these cities’ council members are considered “at large,” meaning they can live anywhere in the city and do not represent a specific ward. Some cities have an entirely at-large council. Others use a mixture of at-large and ward-based members.

One reason Elkins might want to consider introducing at least some at-large members is because our current strict ward-based representation may be limiting the pool of highly qualified people able to serve on council. For example, there could be city residents who would make strong council members but won’t run because they don’t want to unseat their ward’s current representatives. And because councilors currently win or lose elections based entirely on votes in their own wards, there is no inherent incentive to consider issues that do not affect their wards.

What about changing the size of council? With its 10 members, the Elkins council is a relatively large one, compared with those of similarly sized cities. (Elkins has around 7,000 residents.) For example, Bridgeport, with around 8,000 residents, has only five city councilors (all at large); Hurricane, with around 6,000 residents, also has only five councilors (also all at large).

Elkins could save money by reducing the size of council. (Councilors earn $7,200 a year or can take PEIA health insurance coverage in lieu of pay.) Such a reduction might also streamline deliberation and decision making. On the other hand, it could increase the workloads of remaining members and might cause some residents to feel less well represented.

State code is relatively non-specific about city council structures and elections.

Elkins could shift to at-large-only representation (i.e., no ward-based representation), or we could introduce some at-large members while keeping just five ward-based members (for example). These are just two of many possible permutations. In general, introducing at least some at-large members could broaden the pool of possible councilors and incentivize those who win election to take a citywide view. Implementing citywide voting for some or all council seats might also result in increased voter interest and participation.

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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