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.

All city governments are not structured alike. One of the most important things established by a municipal charter is who is responsible for day-to-day administration (e.g., hiring/firing, directing and supervising staff, ensuring adherence to rules and regulations, complying with internal policies, etc.) and who exercises legislative and policy-making authority over the city (e.g., passing laws, adopting rules and regulations, devising strategy, and establishing goals). In West Virginia, the former is referred to as a city’s “administrative authority”; the latter, the city’s “governing body.”

Under state code, West Virginia city governments may be structured under one of five plans. These plans differ mainly in how they assign administrative authority. (Governing authority must be held by a city council or commission under all five plans.)

The plan of government described in the Elkins City Charter most closely resembles a plan that state code calls “Mayor-Council.” Under this plan, our mayor and 10-person council are, collectively, the governing body and administrative authority. Elkins mayors have almost no independent authority; all important decisions are ultimately council’s responsibility. Elkins mayors chair but may not vote in council meetings, except to break a tie.

Other significant provisions of our city charter include:

  • Elections are held first Tuesdays in March in odd-numbered years
  • Two council members are elected from each of the city’s five wards to four-year, staggered terms
  • Mayors serve two-year terms
  • Officers to be appointed by council are “a chief of police, city attorney, superintendent of streets, commissioner of waterworks, city assessor, city collector and treasurer, and city clerk”

In addition to considering changes to the city government’s structure, council also wants to improve parts of the charter that are no longer compatible with state law and with the structure and practices of the government of the City of Elkins, as these have evolved over the years. The current charter, which was adopted in 1901 when Elkins absorbed South Elkins, contains many out-of-date provisions, including:

  • Rules of procedure for mayor’s court (such courts are no longer authorized under state law)
  • Designation of city clerk as a “conservator of the peace” (similar to temporary deputization by a sheriff and today requiring approval of a judge)
  • Assignment of significant duties to office of city assessor, a position rendered obsolete by changes in state law since 1901
  • Stipulation of council-appointed offices of “commissioner of waterworks” and “superintendent of streets,” duties of which have been folded into the position of operations manager
  • Custodianship by city clerk of financial records that are more properly housed with city treasurer
  • Enumeration of more than 80 specific policy-making authorities of council (state law grants all cities and their councils the same scope of authority, which cannot be increased or decreased through a charter)

The charter update process is an opportunity to replace these and other outdated sections, as well as to consider whether structural changes to city government might benefit the city as a whole.

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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