COUNCIL VOICE: Charter changes – minutes tell the story

COUNCIL VOICE • BY TIM MALE,  COUNCILMEMBER, WARD 2

In the conversation about recent Takoma Park city council-adopted changes to our charter to take away a barrier to voter registration and allow 16-17 year olds and people with felony convictions to vote, some questioned whether the council should ever make charter changes. Or they questioned whether it should do so without a referendum if there is any public disagreement about the issue.

Since Takoma Park has changed our charter many times, I decided to go back and look at the origins of our charter – when it was written – to see perhaps what those who helped write it were thinking, at least as reflected by the approved minutes of the Council at that time.

In January 1989, the Council convened a task force to evaluate and make recommendations on a new charter.  The task force that was appointed included 4 residents and 3 members of the council.  Between January of that year and June there was nothing reported in council meeting minutes.  But on July 31st two residents on the task force came and reported to the council on the recommendations and draft of a new charter.  One other resident spoke at that time as well.

The task force member spoke of her recommendation to create a “clerk-treasurer, a deputy city clerk and deputy treasurer…. It need not become an unwieldy bureaucracy but would serve as a check on the city administrator’s authority, which , if the new charter were adopted as presented would give an enormous amount of authority to the city administrator.”

Minutes

The minutes reflect that the charter under discussion was the creation of a new form of government for Takoma Park – a strong manager/weak mayor form that was very different from what existed up until then.

Next it appears that in September 1989, the Council debated the new charter.  The meeting notes reflect a comment from one of the councilmembers that a majority of the residents and a majority of the councilmembers on the task force were concerned about the unprecedented powers being given to the new city manager position.  However, they noted that the majority of the full council didn’t feel that way.  It seemed that at least two councilmembers wanted to have a ‘clerk-treasurer’ who controlled the budget process and reported directly to council as a way to balance or “check” the power of the city manager.  Much of the council discussion focused on these issues as well as the youth curfew, but the mayor proposing an amendment so that it was an overall curfew not a youth curfew to get around constitutional issues.

One councilmember expressed hope that the next council would reevaluate and revise the roles and reporting authorities of the city administrator (manager) and ‘clerk-treasurer.’  One councilmember suggested that a part-time council didn’t have time to supervisor both an administrator/manager and a clerk/treasurer.

Objections: grammer and curfew

All the meeting minutes for the whole year seem to report the names and addresses of all the residents who spoke at meetings so I conclude that only the three residents noted actually spoke at the meeting, two of whom were on the task force.  They too expressed concerns about the powers given to the city manager and about the curfew.  One of the residents who spoke was concerned that the draft of the new charter made available to the public (in the library) had many grammatical and technical errors and also included a provision for creating a youth curfew.  The mayor indicated that the wrong draft – an earlier one – had been put on the display.  Another spoke of her concerns about the lack of a check and balance function on the administrator (manager).

However, at the end of the meeting, despite the level of conflict on some of the issues, the council voted unanimously to adopt the charter.  The new approved charter was then summarized in the city newsletter, and in local newspapers, a copy provided in local libraries and an opportunity provided for a public referendum (at that time, 40 days to get signatures of 20 percent of the residents eligible to be voters).

There is no record of any councilmember or member of the public proposing that, literally, changing our form of government was an inappropriate action for council to take by itself.  There is no record in the meeting minutes that anyone thought it was deserving of a referendum despite the apparently low participation from the public or evidence of some disagreement about the nature and extent of the charter changes.

Much more participation

I point that history out because I think it creates important context for how our charter was set up.  It was set up with an established process through which the council could make changes to the charter, apparently including replacing the whole thing.  Similarly, it was set up with a process by which residents could petition a referendum.

The council that wrote our charter did not see a referendum as necessary even when replacing the whole charter and changing our form of government, in a process apparently not without disagreement.  I’m impressed by how much more participation we had in the process of discussing these minor charter changes.  Dozens and dozens of residents came to council meetings and spoke about the changes (the majority in support).  A petition was provided to council supporting the change with signatures from 30-40 residents.  The Board of Elections spoke to council about the potential changes.  Council took public comment about the changes at three meetings and a public hearing – all that before there was even a first vote by the council.  In addition, councilmembers have been able to communicate for months with the public through electronic newsletters, tweets, Facebook, email and listservs and people who cannot come to council meetings also had the chance to send in comments electronically (and have those comments made available to all as part of the public record).

Reasonable changes

All this  helps me feel that allowing a small number of new voters to join our election process and changing the deadline for voter registration were reasonable changes that council could make. There have been other changes to our charter led by council as well – changes made around 2000, changes before the 1989 ones to eliminate a minimum age for mayor and council (30 and 25, respectively before then).  It seems like council has led charter changes when they have felt it was important to do so and that we have used referendums in cases where the elected council may not have personally supported or felt comfortable supporting a change but residents did.

I could have this history wrong – others would have a direct experience of it – but this is what is in the council-approved meeting minutes from those meetings describe.

Referendum or not?

Jumping forward, as a member of the public (and also councilmember Seamens) said two weeks ago, council is selected by the people of this city to listen and to learn, to spend time that average residents don’t have to dedicate to that listening and learning, and to make decisions – for a time limited by the voters’ will – on behalf of the city.   I believe other councilmembers took that time during the discussion of these voting issues over many months. A number of councilmembers indicated how that process changed their views – in support of the changes.

I think referendums can have great value in some circumstances, but I have strong concerns about the use of referendums to let a majority decide on the rights or privileges of a minority, one that also cannot itself participate in a referendum.  Certainly the history of suffrage expansion in the United States is built primarily on actions of elected officials taking action without ballot measures.

I appreciate the large number of people (most of whom were above the age of 16) from Ward 2 and Takoma Park who spoke to me about these elections issues, in person, by email, on listservs, by phone, in small groups, on my street and at Council.  The clear majority were in support of all three changes.  I also appreciate the significant number of people who said in some form, “these changes sound trivial but positive – go for it and get back to doing things that more directly affect me.”

Lower tax rate

Concerning other actions of council that directly affect everyone,  I note that the same night council adopted election changes in the charter, council also voted to lower the tax rate on everyone who pays property taxes from 0.58 to 0.57, a savings to taxpayers of about $190,000.  Similarly, we also did not maintain a constant yield rate (generally the approach in many previous years) and that decision also keeps about $400,000 with residents instead of with the city.   We made these changes even though many more members of the public spoke up at meetings (and in Ward 2 emails or messages to me) about more spending, not tax reductions.

I am proud of my vote on these issues and of Takoma Park’s willingness to be a leader in inclusiveness – in this case by letting more of our residents be part of the process of selecting our government.

Lower voting age

And I will end with my favorite quote by a Takoma Park teen who spoke at an earlier meeting:

“I’ve lived in Takoma Park my entire life.  It is a big part of who I am  and how I grew up.  I deeply care about this community and I think that I and my peers should be able to have our say…I’ve tried to find ways to help the people of Takoma Park through my entire life, through whatever service opportunities were available to me…park clean ups, food drives, activism, coming to meetings.  I support extending the right to vote to 16 and 17 year olds because people who care about this community should have a voice.  Sixteen and 17 year olds are Takoma Park residents and most will stay here longer than many 18 year olds on their way to college.  Also, 16 year olds pay taxes, hold down jobs here in the community and can be pretty passionate about politics, including local ones.  Change often starts with youth and true to Takoma Park’s reputation as one of the most progressive cities in this great country, I believe we should let youth speak.”