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Explaining the April 6 charter amendments

Friday, March 26, 2010 | 7:56 p.m. CDT; updated 9:52 a.m. CDT, Sunday, March 28, 2010

COLUMBIA — It was the spring of 1949, and there were rumblings in Columbia. Many citizens didn't feel their voices were being heard. Some believed an inefficient city government was wasting their money. So they formed a committee to push for approval of a home-rule charter for the city.

"The people of Columbia have searched for a form of municipal government which will give them a voice in the city administration and yet be economical," reads a brochure written and published by the Columbia Charter Committee. Chester L. Young was its chair and Dave P. Clark its secretary. The committee pushed for the council-manager form of government that remains in place today.

"... the end is not in sight," the brochure said, "unless the people of Columbia adopt a home rule charter and plug up the leaks through which the people's money is wasted."

Later, in a passage that reads similar to some residents' complaints about city government today, the brochure's authors cite the benefits of a council-manager system.

"Under the Columbia home rule charter, the council concerns itself with matters of policy and not with administrative details such as repairing a water pipe, granting or refusing a permit to hang a hot dog sign over the sidewalk or issuing or denying a license for a popcorn stand."

According to the Missouri Constitution, between 1946 and 1971 any city that had a population of 10,000 or more could adopt a charter that would give them all the powersof the Missouri General Assembly, provided the charter adhered with the state constitution. The Columbia charter sailed to approval on March 29, 1949, and has remained in place, largely unchanged, ever since.

But on April 6, voters will find five proposed amendments to the Columbia charter on their ballots. But some of the propositions' language can be confusing. Following is a list of the proposed amendments with their actual ballot language, links to the actual ordinances and simplified explanations. 

Proposition 2

Shall Section 19 of the home rule charter for the city of Columbia, Missouri, be amended as proposed by the City Council to allow the city manager to designate an assistant city manager as acting city manager in the event of the city manager’s absence or disability?

Under the current charter provisions the city manager may only designate a department director as acting city manager.

Explanation:

When the city manager is away for any period of time, usually for travel, he appoints a department director to the acting city manager in his absence, Public Communications Director Toni Messina said. Traditionally, the city manager has appointed the senior department head, which right now is city attorney and Law Department Director Fred Boeckmann.

When the city charter was established, Columbia had no assistant city managers. Now it has two — Tony St. Romaine and Paula Hertwig-Hopkins, who work closely with City Manager Bill Watkins.

Department directors' knowledge is not as extensive in all areas of city government as assistant city managers. Messina said assistant city managers are in good position to bring expertise to any problem that might arise while the city manager is away.

Voting yes on this proposition would allow Watkins and his successors to appoint an assistant city manager to act in his stead whenever he's absent.

Proposition 3

Shall Section 44 of the home rule charter for the city of Columbia, Missouri, be amended as proposed by the City Council to eliminate the restriction on transfer of funds within the first six months of a fiscal year?

Explanation:

Under the current charter, the city budget authority organizes spending budgets by departments and categories. One example would be the category of travel under the Police Department budget.

Sometimes one category of spending will have more money budgeted than necessary, while there might be a need for more cash in another category. City Finance Director Lori Fleming said that sort of thing happens every week, and the city is free to transfer money from one category to another within a department. The council receives regular reports on these transfers and reviews them.

The charter, however, prohibits the transfer of money between two different departments — the Police and Public Works departments, for example — during the first six months of the year. So, if the Police Department had too much money and the Public Works Department too little, the City Council would be unable to make a transfer from one to the other during the first half of the fiscal year.

Proposition 3 would change that, amending this section to remove the six-month constraint.

"The city believes it has more sophisticated monitoring and projection systems that produce more accurate and up-to-date data that allows us to make transfers with confidence earlier in the year," Fleming said.

Proposition 4

Shall Section 99 of the home rule charter for the city of Columbia, Missouri, be amended to remove the requirement that the director of the Water and Light Department be a registered engineer?

Explanation:

The current charter requires that the Water and Light director be a Missouri certified engineer. But times have changed, Messina said. The Water and Light Department now has a lot of engineers on staff. Having an engineer lead the department is no longer critical — and it's expensive. When the city hired its last director, it had to boost the pay range for the position to about $150,000 to attract their chosen candidate.

"What is critical now," Messina said, "is someone who is management- and vision-oriented, someone who can look to the future of the department."

It's tough for the Water and Light Department to find people with both engineering and management expertise, Messina said. Approval of this proposition would allow the city to hire someone who is not a certified electrical engineer to lead the Water and Light Department, and all the engineers on staff would report to him or her.

Proposition 5

Shall articles XVI and XVII of the home rule charter for the city of Columbia, Missouri, be amended as proposed by the city council to modify provisions relating to elections including: changing the filing period for candidates; increasing the time allowed for reviewing petitions for candidate nominations and ballot issues; and requiring petitioners’ names and addresses to be printed legibly on petitions?

Explanation:

This amendment gives the city clerk a little more time to process signatures for petitions and nominations of candidates. All signatures on petitions have to be verified first, and the current charter allows little time to do that.

"We are just trying to modernize the charter to make it compatible with work loads, holidays and weekends," Messina said.

Approval of this proposition would give the city clerk 10 days, instead of five, to verify candidate nominating petitions or provide notice of insufficiency if the petitions fall short. For circulating petitions, the clerk would have 30 days instead of 10 to verify or provide notice of insufficiency. For an initiative or referendum petition, the filing time for amendments would change to 14 days after notification of insufficiency instead of 10, and the city clerk would have 30 days to re-examine and verify them.

Proposition 6

Shall Section 153 of the home rule charter for the city of Columbia, Missouri, be amended as proposed by the City Council to allow city funds in any city depository to be secured by the same kinds of securities that secure state funds in state depositories?

Under the current charter provision, city deposits must be secured by U.S. government obligations.

Explanation:

Anyone who has money in the bank, whether a person, a business or a government entity, has their deposits insured up to a certain dollar amount by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Because the city has more money in the bank than the FDIC insures, the city requires banks to set aside investments as collateral for funds above the FDIC level.

"When the charter was written, we were limited on what we could accept as collateral," Fleming said. "We could only accept federal government investments because they were the most secure. So many changes have been made in the financial market that there are other investments out there that are just as secure."

Voting yes on this proposition would put the city on the same page as the state. So when state requirements for collateral change, the city's would change to match them.

"It's a way of keeping the charter current without adding amendments every time something changes," Fleming said.


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