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Munroe Falls -- The city's charter review commission has made its proposals to City Council and now it has heard from at least a few Councilmembers.
Eight days after submitting its four city charter amendment recommendations to Council, the commission conducted its last meeting June 14 with the specific purpose of listening to the views of any Council members who wished to attend and to answer their questions.
"Our desire is to make it better and easier to govern for the good of all the people," said Commission member Linda Trevorrow in explaining the commissions' recommendations.
Three Councilmembers were present, Council President Steve Stahl and Councilors Gary Toth and Mike Barnes, along with former Councilmember Bentley Hudson, who served two terms from 1996 to 2004.
The commission began meeting weekly in mid-April and under the charter, had until July 1 to submit its recommendations to Council. Council has until Aug. 9, the deadline for submitting issues to the Summit County Board of Elections for inclusion on the Nov. 7 general election ballot, to discuss the recommendations and decide what will be put before the voters.
The four recommendations include:
Eliminate the city's three wards and make all seven Council seats at-large seats, rather than have the current four at-large and three ward representatives.
Commission members say they do not believe the city, with a population of only about 5,000 residents, is large enough to justify having wards.
"We also discussed that Council is pretty approachable no matter what ward you're from," Commission member Yvonne Cherkala said. "Do we even need wards?"
Stahl said he agrees with eliminating wards, especially since research he has done going back to 2003 indicates that at-large races in Munroe Falls are more likely to be contested than ward races, giving voters more of a choice.
"There has never been an at-large seat unopposed. The majority of wards are unopposed," he said.
The city once had no wards, then went to six wards, then dropped to four and finally to the current three several years ago. Toth said he thinks going to three wards was "a good compromise" and worries that yet another change would convince voters that city officials "can't make up [their] minds."
"I'm kind of on the fence on this one," said Toth.
Barnes said he "doesn't necessarily object to it" but wondered if the move would discourage people from running for Council since campaigning would require a greater effort from all Council candidates.
"Running at large means you have to campaign in the entire city," he said. "Does it create an obstacle, an artificial obstacle?"
Hudson said he served on Council when all the seats were at-large and it was his experience when campaigning that it allows candidates to learn about problems and issues that they might not discover if they only campaign within a ward.
"I think you gain a tremendous amount as a Council person," he said, adding that serving on Council requires a strong commitment.
"I think you shouldn't just walk into the job," said Hudson.
A recommendation eliminating a requirement that says changes in the city's income tax credit can only be made with voter approval.
The tax credit currently is at 100 percent, meaning that residents who work in a community that has the same or higher local income tax rate as Munroe Falls' 2.25 percent do not pay the Munroe Falls tax. Residents paying less than 2.25 percent to another community would pay the difference between the two tax rates to Munroe Falls.
Mayor James Armstrong previously said he supported allowing city officials to reduce the tax credit without voter approval because of uncertainties and worries over the city's fiscal state prior to voters approving in May an increase to the city's income tax rate from 2 percent to 2.25 percent and a 2.8-mill police levy.
A reduction in the tax credit was considered as an alternative if the tax issues had been defeated, but this was problematic since it would also require voter approval under the charter and could be an even harder sell than the tax issues, said Armstrong.
The June 14 discussion of this recommendation consisted primarily of a sparring match, albeit a civil one, between Trevorrow and Barnes.
Trevorrow said no one can say what the city's financial state will be in the future and she would hope that city officials down the road would think very carefully about any tax increase.
But she said allowing city officials the power to reduce the tax credit "allows you to have more tools in your toolbox."
Barnes, however, said he believes that a reduction in the credit constitutes "an increase in taxes" and he believes voters should always have the right to make that decision.
"Generally speaking, people don't trust government to spend money wisely," said Barnes.
Hudson said that if city officials reduced the credit, residents do have the option of placing a referendum of the ballot reversing the decision. But Barnes asked, "Shouldn't the barrier be on the side of the body that wants the tax?"
A recommendation to reduce the number of the city's park board from nine to five members, the level that it was at in the past.
Commission members said they chose to include this recommendation because five members may be more appropriate for a city the size of Munroe Falls.
"We all want people to participate, but in reality it's hard to get nine people for a committed period of time," said Trevorrow, adding that the commission had heard that it is difficult for the park board to get a quorum at meetings.
Toth, who serves as Council's alternate representative to the park board, acknowledged that there are currently three vacant seats on the board and attaining a quorum can be a challenge, but precisely because it is difficult to find volunteers, the board not only wants to remain at nine members, it wants a charter amendment making the Council representative a 10th voting member.
Law Director Tom Kostoff said making the Council representative a voting member would require a charter amendment because the charter currently prohibits voting park board members from holding any other elective office in the city.
"If you're going to change it, what's the purpose?" asked Kostoff.
Hudson said he believes having 10 voting members would be a bad idea because it would increase the likelihood of tie votes.
"You'd end up bashing heads," he said. "That's why you have odd numbers."
A recommendation authorizing the city's law director to make changes to the charter, such as fixing typographical errors. Such changes would still be subject to Council approval and cannot alter the "construction, meaning, substance, or intent of the charter as adopted and amended by the people."
Commission Chairman Brad Sisek said it is simply "housecleaning."
"Actually, we got the idea from the Stow charter," said Commission member Lisa Hawes.
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Thought this was a meeting for Council members to share their views and questions. Surprising to see that Mr. Hudson was able to share his.
Yes, we need wards! The whole purpose of the wards was to make it possible for citizens to feel that they are being represented by someone familiar with their part of the city's unique problems/issues. What makes eliminating the three wards "better"? With barely 5,000 residents (and potentially soon no longer a city), maybe we aren't large enought to justify having seven Council members! Mr. Stahl, research shows that ward representation encourages a more representative/diverse group of people to participate in government as compared to only at large representation. How can the city encourage MOREparticipation rather than eliminatea way for some to participate due to the financial burdens of running for an large seat?
Any changes in taxing should ONLYbe made with voter approval. Do you want us to trust you?