Board Members Say They Like
Several Ideas, Reject Others,
Still Not Sure About Some
BY SARAH GREGORY
The length of terms for the Greeneville Board of Mayor and Aldermen, the month when municipal elections are held, and other proposed changes to the Town's charter were the topic of discussion during a Thursday afternoon board workshop.
Members of the Board met in the G. Thomas Love Boardroom at the Greeneville Light & Power System to discuss several proposed charter revisions. As with regular board meetings, the session was open to the public.
The town plans to submit proposed changes to the Tennessee General Assembly for the Assembly's consideration in 2014.
Since Greeneville's charter was issued in the early 1900s by the legislature, the charter may not be changed without approval by both the legislature and the board members themselves.
The same procedure was followed two years ago when the board revised the town charter to provide for the position of city administrator, the position now held by Todd Smith.
STARTED IN WINTER
The board members began discussing the changes in-depth in February and March of this year.
The budget development process, however, required the board's attention in the spring, so further consideration of charter revisions was put aside temporarily.
City Administrator Smith said Thursday's workshop was an opportunity for the board to give him guidance as he drafts language to be considered for the revisions document.
The informal workshop, at which no votes were taken, started with a review of proposed changes since the last board discussion of the subject in March.
"I just want to be sure that we're on the same page and going in the right direction," he said.
Discussions about the changes will continue in the coming weeks.
The board hopes to finalize the proposed changes in November or December and submit them for state approval in January 2014.
If the changes are approved by the state, they must be voted on locally again in order to go into effect.
MOVE ELECTION TO AUGUST
One idea that has clearly gained the support of the board, even though no vote on it has been taken, is moving Greeneville municipal elections to coincide with Greene County General Elections, which are held in early August.
Greeneville municipal elections have traditionally been held in early June.
The move would spare the Town the expense involved in keeping voter precincts open, since those precincts would already be open for the county elections, at the county's expense.
The board spent little time discussing this revision, and transitioned to a more in-depth discussion about changing from two-year terms to four-year terms for Mayor and Aldermen.
TWO OR FOUR YEARS?
"What I've come up with is language that starts putting in the execution of moving from two-year terms to four-year terms," Smith said.
"Next year, the election would stay the same" with a two-year term, Smith said.
"But starting in 2015, that term goes to basically what amounts to a three-year term. That term will be up in 2018," he explained.
"So you have a 2014 election, and those offices go through 2016. You'll have a 2015 election, and those offices will go through 2018. So you've set yourself up to go, at that point, to four-year terms," he said.
"Most local government levels are at least four-year terms," Smith told the board.
It was pointed out by Aldermen Darrell Bryan and Keith Paxton, however, that such a staggering of the schedule would require that an alderman give up the seat he or she occupies if the alderman should decide to run for mayor.
An alderman from one ward, Bryan said, "could run [for mayor] if they so desire, but the other side [ward], if they decided to run, would have to give up a seat. So, it's not equal" because a candidate cannot run for two seats at the same time.
"We're going to have to tweak the terms" in order to address that issue, Smith said.
A measure that would essentially force an officeholder to resign, he added, would also need to be reviewed by Town Attorney Ron Woods to determine whether it is legal.
That requirement, Mayor W.T. Daniels observed, can lead the Town into what he called "a dangerous situation" in terms of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen being tasked with filling an unexpired term.
In such a situation, he said, "the people haven't spoken when it comes to filling that spot."
PROS AND CONS
Discussion continued, with the board essentially weighing the pros and cons of such a change.
Most of the positive outcomes for such a change were presented as having administrative advantages.
"There is an election every 12 months, and we as employees know that. We understand that when we get into the election cycle, things change. Things slow down," Smith said.
Alderman Bryan replied, however, that "I think, maybe, in our minds, by changing to the City Administrator, that we took some of the politics out of that part of it. Hopefully it helps by doing that."
"An election can, unfortunately, put a different cloud on things, I guess, when it comes to making decisions," Daniels said, but he agreed with Bryan about the change to an administrator-type structure having increased professionalism in Town Hall.
Four-year terms, Smith said, give board members time to learn about the complex issues they handle.
"It's about the two-year mark when somebody starts to understand these issues; then they're up for election again," he said.
"From the efficiency standpoint, from an administrative perspective, it's easier to work with a board for a four-year term when you can let folks kind of get their feet wet," Smith explained.
LOSS OF ACCOUNTABILITY?
John M. Jones Jr., editor of The Greeneville Sun, attended the workshop as a citizen and spoke briefly on the issue.
"I don't think it's a good step for the public to have to wait four years to correct a mistake, instead of two. I think that is a significant loss of accountability between the official and the public," Jones told the board.
"Generally, the confidence [of the public] is highest when they feel closest to the people who are making the decisions for them," he said.
"I think there is a lot of sense in Greeneville that the people do feel close to their Aldermen and Mayor, and they know that [the elected officials are] on a relatively short leash," he said.
"I see no value in going to a four-year term, except the convenience of the elected officials, and I think that is secondary to the issue of the representation, accountability, and sense of closeness [inherent in the two-year term of office]."
He said the board is already addressing financial concerns about keeping precincts open by moving the election date to coincide with Greene County General Elections held in August.
"To me, it's a situation of something not being broken and not needing to be fixed. It's a solution without a problem.
"I just don't think that the convenience of the officeholders is worth what you give up in terms of accountability between public officials and the voters," Jones concluded.
TO BE DETERMINED
As discussions on the subject continued, it became clear that the board had not developed consensus on changing to four-year terms.
There was brief talk about considering putting the issue before the voters in the form of a referendum to decide if they prefer term lengths of two or four years.
The board ultimately decided to continue discussion on the topic and give it further consideration at a future workshop.
CHANGES TO WARDS?
Aldermen were clear in their support for maintaining two wards in the town, as has always been the case.
Earlier this year, there had been some discussion about a proposal by Smith to discontinue the system of wards in favor of a system in which all aldermen (though not the mayor) would be elected on an at-large basis.
The mayor is always elected on an at-large basis.
However, as Alderman Sarah E.T. Webster pointed out Thursday, abolishing the two-ward system for choosing aldermen in favor of at-large election could possibly create a situation in which all of the aldermen and the mayor lived in the same area of town.
It was quickly determined through the discussion Thursday that the wards would stay in the charter.
However, the possibility of changing how the wards are divided does exist in order to make sure that the population is approximately the same in both wards.
Currently, Church Street is the dividing line between the First Ward and the Second Ward: the part of town north of Church Street makes up the First Ward and the part of town south of Church Street makes up the Second Ward.
BOTH WARDS ON BALLOT
Another change that seemed to gain momentum was a suggestion, made by Webster in the spring, that each ward have one of its two aldermen up for election in each town election.
Currently, the wards choose their aldermen in alternate years, and the mayor is elected in the year that First Ward aldermen are on the ballot.
It was pointed out that the current schedule creates a situation in which voter turnout during mayoral elections can be unbalanced between the wards, since significantly more First Ward voters turn out to vote because there are no Second Ward alderman candidates on the ballot.
"When you have the election of the mayor -- for every election -- you'd have a reason for [voters from] both sides [wards] to come out" if both wards are not only voting for mayor but also choosing an alderman, Webster said.
"I think that makes it reasonable, because when we have the mayor's election, we have to have all of the [voting] precincts open, and if there's no opposition, we are paying," she explained.
"The last election, there were 120-some people voting, and we figured it was $75 or $80 [in costs to the Town] for each person to vote. The election before that, [the cost per participating voter] was even higher," Webster added.
Another change discussed briefly Thursday was the suggestion to extend the introductory period for new police and fire department employees from six months to 12 months.
This change was suggested earlier in the year by Greeneville Fire Department Chief Mark Foulks and Greeneville Police Chief Terry Cannon.
Foulks explained to the board that, with the amount of school and training that new fire and police department employees are expected to complete, there is little time for their job performance to be evaluated within the current six-month introductory period.
Foulks said the training lasts 13 to 14 weeks for the departments, adding that the chiefs "do not have adequate time to evaluate [the new employees'] performance."
Aldermen were supportive of the change.
OTHER CHARTER ISSUES
Other changes mentioned briefly included:
* a previously-agreed-upon change that would remove Justice of the Peace responsibilities from the office of the mayor;
* a previously-agreed-upon change which would remove the Board of Mayor and Aldermen's salaries from the charter and instead include them as part of the budgeting process;
* a previously-agreed decision not to eliminate the charter requirement that any new penal ordinances of the town must be published once in a local newspaper of general circulation, and that a summary of any other new ordinances must be similarly published once;
* A change that would remove the Recorder's office, the Police Chief and Fire Chief, and the two departments' assistant chiefs from Greeneville's Civil Service system is also under consideration.
Current employees in those positions would, however, be "grandfathered-in" and would therefore retain the Civil Service protections they have now.
* Aldermen observed that a process for selecting the Town's vice-mayor is not specifically outlined in the charter. Smith will begin drafting proposed language on that subject according to suggestions made Thursday.
The consensus was that Smith should create new language to make such a process clear for the board's consideration.