The Mayor’s Charter Club

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In the council meeting on December 14, Mayor Jones announced that Ferguson would be considering changes to the charter. While the mayor declined to specify specific reasons for calling for changes, it has been widely speculated that she would like to change the mayor’s position from an at-large member of council, to a full time position with executive power and a salary. The mayor also announced that the changes would be put forth by a charter commission, with each council member appointing one member to the commission.

In the public comment segment of last night’s council meeting, Gerry Noll, a Ferguson resident who serves on the Civilian Review Board, read a letter which he had previously sent to the council, challenging the legality of this commission. Noll references the charter provision which determines the manner in which changes can be made:

Section 11.12 – Amendments

Amendments to this charter may be framed and submitted to the voters by a commission in the manner provided by the state constitution and law for framing and submitting a complete new charter. Amendments may also be proposed by the council or by initiative petition of not less than ten percent of the registered qualified voters of the city, filed with the clerk, setting forth the proposed amendment. The council shall at once provide by ordinance that any amendment so proposed shall be submitted to the voters at the next election held in the city not less than sixty days after its passage, or at a special election held as provided by the constitution and law of the state for a charter. Any amendment approved by a majority of the qualified voters voting thereon shall become a part of the charter at the time and under the conditions fixed in the amendment; sections or articles may be submitted separately or in the alternative and determined as provided by the constitution and law of the state for a complete charter.

The initiative method has been employed once, when voters ratified a body camera video provision in 2017. Volunteers gather signatures for that measure in 2016, and it was ratified by voters in the April 2017 election. It now appears as section 5.4 of the charter.

Of course, the mayor, who commands a majority on council at this time, could unilaterally propose changes to the charter. As with any legislation, the mayor could employ the services of the city attorney to draft legislation making those changes. This would allow Mayor Jones to propose whatever changes she has in mind, but of course, would also leave her to justify those changes. If the rumors of her desire to increase the pay and power of the mayor are accurate, those changes could be difficult to justify.

If the city wishes to proceed with a charter commission, it must be formed “in the manner provided by the state constitution.” That can be found in article 6, section 19, which requires the following steps:

  1. Council can pass an ordinance asking the voters whether they wish to form a commission to amend the charter.
  2. Those wanting to serve as members of the commission must obtain signatures on a petition, and they run as candidates in the same election where the question is voted upon.
  3. If the question is approved by a majority of voters, then the 13 candidates for the commission with the highest number of votes will serve.
  4. The commission has one year to complete their work, upon which, the proposal is again submitted to the voters.

This, and only this, is the lawful way to amend our charter by commission. There is no provision in state law for appointment of a charter commission by elected officials.

There is, of course, nothing to prevent the mayor from gathering a group of her friends to come up with proposed changes, and pushing those changes onto the ballot using her majority on council. But that group is not an official committee of the city. It has no authority, nor any obligation to follow Sunshine laws or other restrictions imposed upon the legitimate functions of municipal government. And of course, if the mayor is not satisfied with their work, she can simply proceed with whatever changes she desires, pushing them through with her allies on council.

Because this committee can’t be an official function of city government, it ought not be discussed in city meetings, nor should it be utilizing any city resources. If they need an attorney to help draft changes, it should be done at their own private expense. If they want to utilize city resources, they must form a committee which complies with the requirements of the charter and state law.

As for those who were appointed to this committee, they may wish to reconsider their participation in what can only be a shadow group reporting to the mayor personally, entirely outside the boundaries of city government. The mayor hasn’t formed a charter commission, because she doesn’t have the authority to do so. This is The Mayor’s Charter Club, nothing more. Members, and voters, should guide themselves accordingly.