Senoia to hold hearing on charter change

Those attending the Nov. 5 meeting of the Senoia City Council will see contemporary history in the making. The meeting will feature a public hearing on changing the city charter to a form of government designed to limit the power of the mayor. A part of the charter change will include the imposition of term limits for the mayor and council. The council on Oct. 3 reached a consensus to hold a public hearing on the charter change that would result in the “council-manager” form of government.

Though operating more like the council-manager form of government for the past few years, the idea to change the city charter was essentially one that would prevent future mayors from possessing the far-reaching control found in the strong mayor model. Under the current “strong mayor-council model,” the mayor has control over a multitude of city functions and serves as the chief executive officer. Under the council-manager model the city manager has the responsibility for a variety of functions such as daily operations, personnel and finances.

When it comes to the current form of government, city attorney Drew Whalen maintains that the city currently operates officially under the “weak mayor-council” form of government because the mayor has no personal city staff. The reality, however, is that the city currently operates more like the strong mayor-council form even though that approach is not used. And as for Mayor Robert Belisle and council members, they want to change the charter to a “council-manager” form to make sure that future mayors and council members possess only minimal power over the daily operations of the city.

Citing one of the reasons to change the charter, both Belisle and some on the council at the Oct. 3 work session noted that past problems had existed under the strong mayor form of government. And though the council-manager form could be reversed by a future council, the consensus was that the safest and most beneficial approach for Senoia citizens would be to limit the powers of the mayor by having the city manager responsible for finances, personnel and the day-to-day operations of city government.

With the meeting coming next week, what do members of the council have to say about the consensus they reached on the council-manager form of government and the imposition of terms limits on elected officials?

“With 40 employees and a $5 million budget, we need professional management. You need a full-time person responsible for day-to-day operations, not a part-time mayor,” Belisle said, having previously noted that, while the town manager currently fulfills those responsibilities there is no assurance, short of a charter change, that future councils would not revert back to the having the mayor play a more pivotal role in the city’s operation.

Councilman Bobby Graham agreed with the need to formalize the charter to the council-manager form.

“It’s a shifting of responsibility from some of the mayor’s power to be shared between the mayor and council and shifting responsibility to a professional (manager),” Graham said. “Under that scenario it’s absolutely the thing to do. And it will de-politicize the running of city government.”

Councilman Larry Owens in his comments on the issue said, “I think it’s time. Our little city is growing up and we need a change of government. It’s time for a change.”

Councilman Maurice Grover also supports the charter change.

“I suppose it’s in our best interest to have a professional (at City Hall) every day making administrative decisions,” Grover said.

Also weighing in with his support for the change was Councilman Jeff Fisher, saying that campaigning and winning elections is not synonymous with leadership through the use of politics.

“The city manager’s position itself embodies the relationship between politics and administration. A change to the charter and city ordinance would offer a long-lasting solution to government reform that separates politics and administrative functions,” Fisher said. “The proposed change does not guarantee government efficiency or provide for an increase in competence, but it will substantially increase the odds of doing so while insuring future viability and a high quality of life for our residents.”

As for the portion of the charter change dealing with the imposition of term limits, three consecutive terms for council members and two consecutive terms for mayor, all on the council support the move.

For his part, Grover said term limits might not be needed today at the city level, but he understands the point behind the move and is in favor of having term limits.

Owens, too, supports the proposal, noting that, “Term limits are a good idea. It allows fresh ideas and new leadership down the road and will provide different viewpoints.”

Graham in his support of term limits said, “They are a good thing. An (elected position) is not about power and not about a life-long position, it’s about serving the people. I think Congress needs term limits, so we should do the same at our level.”

Belisle shares the same viewpoint on term limits.

“It’s a philosophical thing,” Belisle said. “We can’t fix the problem in Washington without saying it wouldn’t work here.”

And for his part, Fisher said term limits are the only way to, “change the culture of legislative careerism - a culture that undermines the public interest.”

Pertaining to the council-manager form of local government, the city council provides the primary policy-making role, and an appointed city manager provides the primary executive role. It combines the strong political leadership of the elected mayor and council with the strong managerial experience of an appointed local government manager. The structure of a municipality operating under the council-manager form of government is similar to the structure of a corporation. To this end, the municipality’s citizens are treated as shareholders that elect a city council to serve as their board of directors. The city council establishes the city’s policies, while a professional city manager, hired by the city council, is charged with implementing the council’s policies. In this capacity, the city manager functions similarly to a corporation’s chief executive officer, according to the Georgia Municipal Association.

The Nov. 5 meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at the Municipal Court building on Howard Road.

The council might adopt the charter change resolution at the Nov. 5 meeting or put it off to a later date. If adopted, the resolution will be submitted to the General Assembly for a vote during the 2013 session.