City council to put charter changes to vote

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

An election could come as early as Feb. 7.

Cape Girardeau's city council operated shorthanded for the first three months of the year after two council members resigned. Council members don't want that to happen again. They want voters to amend the city charter to allow the council to fill the vacancies by appointment until an election can be held.

That's one of three changes proposed by a council-appointed charter review committee and embraced by the council.

The other two changes would allow the city council to raise park and other user fees without voter approval and would set up a new system for reviewing ethics complaints.

Voter approval still would be needed to raise water, sewer and trash fees by more than 5 percent annually.

The council may ask voters to approve the proposed charter amendments as early as Feb. 7. Council members could choose an election date when they meet Monday night.

Other possible election dates next year include the municipal election on April 4 as well as on June 6, Aug. 8 or Nov. 7.

Mayor Jay Knudtson said the issue of filling vacancies drove the council's desire to amend the charter, which governs how council members are elected and how the city government operates.

Under the proposal, the council would have to fill any vacancy within 60 days of its occurrence. The appointed person would serve on the council until a special election could be held to fill the unexpired term or until the normal expiration date of that term.

The amendment also would eliminate the requirement that at least four of the seven council members must be in attendance to conduct city business. The council would be able to conduct business even if vacancies temporarily prevented it from having a quorum, city attorney Eric Cunningham wrote in a memorandum to the city council. The amendment sets no requirement on the number of council members needed to conduct business under those circumstances.

Knudtson said voters shouldn't be alarmed over the amendment that would eliminate their role in raising golf, park and other user fees. If the council were to raise golf fees, for example, it won't affect "the little old lady" who doesn't play the sport, the mayor said.

There would be no restriction on how much the council could raise fees other than those for water, sewer and garbage.

The third charter amendment would eliminate the city's permanent ethics commission. It would allow the city council to appoint a temporary ethics committee or immediately forward any ethics complaint to the Missouri State Ethics Commission. The commission has had only one complaint in the nearly 10 years it has existed.

The charter review committee, headed by real estate agent Tom M. Meyer, said the change would force the council to act quickly to address any ethics complaint.

The committee decided against recommending a fourth possible amendment which would have eliminated the need for a municipal election when there are no contested races for city council. Committee members said they didn't want to eliminate the possibility of a write-in candidate. The council agreed, pointing to the election last April of write-in candidate Debra Tracy to the Ward 3 council seat.

Councilman Charlie Herbst said all three proposed amendments aren't controversial. "These changes are more administrative in nature," he said.

Unlike sales tax elections in recent years, Herbst said he doesn't expect city officials to campaign extensively for the proposed charter amendments.

A simple majority is needed for passage of each of those three amendments. Voters adopted a city charter in 1981 and have amended it several times since then.

335-6611, extension 123

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