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Reform required: Outdated City Charter is Clarksville’s weakness

 

The Constitution of the City of Clarksville has been identified as as a weakness for the people of this community, but that’s on the brink of change.

Franklin StreetThe City finally has formed a Charter committee to look into and reform the Charter and Codes, the documents that form the Constitution of the City and its laws. But why did it take so long when it was identified years ago that the Charter was indeed a weakness.

It had been reported (LC Sept 27, 04) to the people that one of the many problems in our city government is ineffective communications between city leaders, and this is true. However, this is only a symptom of a greater problem of which was also identified. I am referring to our city constitution which was identified as “an outdated city charter.”

This was identified at a session of the Council’s strategic planning process which was facilitated by a member of U.T. Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS). MTAS is the so-called expects in the field of city government, but what exactly do they say about charters, and our abilities to understand and question our charter?

In December 1992, MTAS published a paper titled Getting to Know and Maybe Love Your Municipal Charter where they state that “a municipal charter is the constitution of the town or city.” (Indeed, it is a social contract between the governed and those that govern.) A simple reading of the charter, as stated by MTAS, does not require one to be a lawyer or even have a college degree. They have stated that if something does not make sense “…there’s a good chance the fault lies in the charter…” and that “…many charters contain poorly written provisions.” They even say to “….get rid of it”, which can be understood to be either the charter as a whole or the provision(s) in question. And so it would appear to be with our charter.

One such faulty provision is the power of the Executive Branch (city Mayor) as it relates to the Legislative Branch (City Council) whereas the Mayor is a member of the Council, a blatant violation of the separation of powers. The current situation within our city government, and with the charter, is not so much about political power play, as some would have you to believe, as it is about the apparent lack of understanding about our form of city government, the traditional concept of separation of powers, of checks and balances, and most importantly, it’s abuses in that it does not provide a form of government based upon a separation of powers by a system of checks and balances.

In the traditional mayor-and-council form of government, which is the oldest form of city government, has been shown to be workable. The separation of powers is clean and simple, and it offers checks and balances. The mayor is the administrator, and as administrative head of City government, the mayor works with the City Council in matters relating to legislation, including the City’s annual budget, supervises city departments, enforces the charter and codes of the city and runs the city’s day-to-day business. The mayor does not vote on any issues before Council unless in the event of a tie, but may preside as the chair of the Council if a chair is not select from among the Council (if permitted by charter). Instead, the mayor signs or vetoes Council legislation.

The true city council is the legislative branch with legislative powers exclusively vested in it. They adopt ordinances and fulfill the role of advice and consent. The Council has the power to conduct investigations concerning any subject on which it may legislate, or the operation of a department, board or commission engaged in administrative affairs of the City. As the mayor prepares the budget, it is the council, with the option to amend it, which must enact the budget.

Instead, our charter instills the power of both the Executive Branch and of Legislative Branch in one person, that of the Mayor. The Mayor is not only the Executive of the city government (Part 1, Art. IV, Sec. 2), but he is also the presiding official and member of the Legislative Branch, the City Council, with legislative (law making) powers (Part 1, Art. II, sec. 10, 11, 20; Art. I, Sec.2 (b)). It is at this point that the city charter, our “Constitution”, violates the constitutional principles of “Separation of Powers” within a system of “checks and balances”.

The Charter provides the Mayor, as the Executive Branch, the executive privilege of the veto and the privileges of Legislative by permitting him to vote on all matters presented to the council (Art II, Sec 10; Art IV, Sec. 2) even if a tie breaking vote is not mandated. In theory, and principle, he can veto any legislation passed and than vote on the Council to uphold his own veto or even that of his own proposed legislation. The checks and balances of a free and just government are thereby negated. There is no true separation of powers, but gradual concentration of power into the hands of one body or person, something our Founding Fathers feared.

And so it is that we have “the accumulation of all powers” into one branch of government. This is the weakness of our city “Constitution”, the social contract between the governed and the government. It does not matter who is the Executive, be he over-ambitious with delusions of grandeur or a person of high morals and values, they are both human with human weakness, for without the proper checks in place, the current city government will continue to be unlimited and irresponsible with poor leadership.

And what is the cure for this ailment that favors quasi-tyrannical powers? The debaters of the national constitution knew the answer to this query, “….that it is an established principle in America…that the legislative and executive powers ought to be kept forever separate and distinct from each other….” (Pennsylvania Herald (Phil.), Oct. 17, 1787). The charter must be revisited, changed and executed so that there is a true separation of governmental powers supported by checks and balances. The Executive must not have the power combination of the Legislative vote upon all matters and that of the Executive veto.

But there has been an attempt at change but it was rejected. It was rejected by those that we have put our trust and faith in: our city leaders.

In November 2003, it was identified that the charter needed to be updated. Councilman Couch proposed a revision task force to address the charter’s weaknesses and to provide a more responsible and accountable government that would meet the needs of the people. However, the Mayor said “….that’s a dangerous thing to do.” This is not only contrary to what MTAS states, but also to what David Kanervo of Austin Peay’s political science department stated that “….officials should not avoid efforts to study and revise the charter….” and “….to let the newer generations of government look at the document and suggest what changes are needed.” (LC Nov. 22, 03)

In December 2003, Councilman Takasaki tried to bring a balance between the executive and the legislative branches by removing the Executive from voting on legislative matters thus ensuring a true separation of powers with a system of checks and balances. But again the Mayor, as were several of the members of the council, was against such a positive change. Councilman Boyd stated that he is against removing the legislative vote of the Executive (LC Dec 13, 03). In the December F&A meeting, Councilman Segovia vote against a resolution for change (LC Dec 23, 03). Councilman Caldwell voted against the correction of the charter due to fear of changing the government (LC Dec 23. 03), even though he understands changes need to be made. The Leaf Chronicle also was against such a needed change to the charter as noted in their editorial on November 6 and 16, 2003. The Mayor opposed it by stating that it would “chip away” his powers (LC Dec. 2, 03), even though some of that power is not truly an executive prerogative, but a questionable abuse of power of overriding legislative policies as set in the charter and the codes.

These overrides dealt with questionable pay raises and reclassification of certain Gas & Water employees, a pay raise for city personnel who was still on probation and a perception of favoritism toward a city employee doing business with the city. These questionable actions were blessed, or disregarded, by the Executive. However, when it was proposed to update the charter and stop such action, the Chief Executive had cast a “legislative” vote ending any promise for a fair and just charter.

And so it is that our charter has been pointed out as a weakness of the city and is it any wonder given how the government violates the very basic operations of good government.

But all the more shame is that we knew that the charter was outdated and we as a city failed to make the positive change. Where is the progressive leadership of the city?

Hopefully, the new committee will finally correct the charter so that the people will finally have a governement of the people, for the people and by the people; a government that is responsive to all and not to the few.


About Mike Sanford

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