Cape council, mayor split on changes to charter

Monday, November 28, 2005

Doubt cast on whether proposed changes have a chance to succeed on April 4 ballot.

Cape Girardeau City Council members first talked of changing the city charter seven months ago. But Mayor Jay Knudtson now questions if voters would approve the proposed changes and even whether they should be submitted to voters next April.

The mayor's doubts aren't shared by the rest of the council.

Other council members say they're ready to submit the issues to voters. A final decision is expected at the council's Dec. 5 meeting.

City officials said the council must act by that date in order to put any proposed charter amendments on the April 4 ballot.

One measure would allow the council to appoint residents to fill vacancies until the next regular or special election.

A second measure would allow the council to raise park and other user fees without voter approval. Voter approval still would be needed to raise water, sewer and trash fees more than 5 percent in any one year.

The third measure would scrap the city's permanent and seldom-used ethics commission. The amendment would allow the council to appoint a temporary committee to address a specific complaint or immediately forward the complaint to the state ethics commission.

Like others on the council, Knudtson favors the changes but he said it could be hard to convince voters of the need to change the city's governing document without a massive election campaign.

"I am never a big advocate of throwing things out there to fail," he said.

'Impassioned' campaign

Without an extensive campaign by council and city staff, all three measures likely would fail, the mayor said.

Knudtson said he doesn't expect city officials to campaign aggressively for the three measures like they did for passage of the transportation sales tax and the fire sales tax in the past two years. Voters overwhelmingly approved those two tax measures.

But without an "impassioned' campaign to sell voters on the issues, Knudtson sees a recipe for defeat.

"Really, what we are talking about are some administrative adjustments," the mayor said. "I am not sure if it is worth the political capital to jeopardize what I think is one of the highest levels of confidence and support the citizenry has had in municipal government in a long, long time."

Councilman Charlie Herbst believes city officials can make their case without a lot of electioneering.

"We can get the information in the newspaper and on the radio," he said.

Councilwoman Loretta Schneider said the council needs to put the three charter measures on the April ballot.

"We will at least get an idea how people feel about those issues," she said.

"What harm is it in putting it on the ballot? You have an election anyway," Schneider said.

Voters will elect candidates to fill three council seats and the mayor's post in the April municipal election. Knudtson is seeking re-election to a second, four-year term.

Schneider said council members shouldn't suggest the measures will fail.

"I don't think we ought to say we don't think it will pass before we get it on the ballot," she said.

Knudtson said the user-fee issue could draw the most opposition from voters.

But Herbst said city officials have no plans to significantly raise user fees even if voters approved the charter amendment.

But it could provide a way to provide additional revenue that could make it easier for the city to improve parks and provide added recreational services.

In any case, user fees won't pay all the operational costs for pools and parks, Herbst said.

"The misconception people have is that they think the city wants to raise user fees to make a profit," he said.

Council members repeatedly have said that filling council vacancies is the most important of the three measures.

The seven-member council operated with two vacancies for the first three months of this year until the seats could be filled in the municipal election.

Knudtson said it makes sense to allow the remaining council members to fill those seats by appointment until the next regular or special election.

But even that proposal could draw opposition from some voters, he said. "Right, wrong or indifferent, it has the appearance of stacking the council," the mayor said.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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