Cape council may revise city charter

Saturday, April 9, 2005

A new city committee will review Cape Girardeau's city charter and recommend possible revisions to the city council. Ultimately, voters would have to approve any changes before they could take effect.

The council at its daylong retreat Friday said it wants the committee to look at the entire city charter, including how vacancies are filled on the council and whether limitations on raising user fees should be scrapped.

Council members and city staff also discussed the possibility of eliminating the city's permanent ethics commission, which has dealt with only one complaint in nine years. A revision could also change how council members are elected.

The charter currently prohibits the city council from raising user fees and taxes by more than 5 percent in any year without voter approval.

But city officials and council members said that makes it difficult to sufficiently raise user fees to cover costs.

City attorney Eric Cunningham said the courts have ruled that the state's tax-limiting Hancock Amendment requires voter approval to raise taxes but doesn't limit raising user fees.

But Cape Girardeau can't take advantage of such court rulings because of the city charter, Cunningham said.

"When costs go up more than 5 percent we are in a bind," he told the council at the retreat held at the Osage Community Centre.

The city's system of electing council members by ward may be reviewed by the charter committee.

Newly elected Councilwoman Loretta Schneider said she's uncertain whether voters would want to scrap the system of electing council members by wards and return to electing council members at-large as was done until 12 years ago.

"We could keep the wards and have more than one council member in each ward," Schneider suggested.

Another possibility, she said, would be to elect some council members at-large and others by wards.

The city currently has six council members with one council member elected from each ward. They serve staggered terms. The mayor is elected at-large.

Another possible change centers on uncontested elections. Under the current charter, the city must hold an election even when no races are contested. The city must pay the expense of such a municipal election, officials said.

State lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow cities to avoid holding elections when there are no contested races. But even if that bill passes, Cape Girardeau's city charter doesn't allow for it, Cunningham said.

Voters would have to amend the charter to allow for such a practice, he told the council.

Canceling uncontested elections would save the city an estimated $10,000 an election, but it also would prevent someone from filing as a last-minute write-in candidate.

Debra Tracy won election to the council on Tuesday as a write-in candidate, having filed just over a week before the election.

Cunningham said the council may need to change how vacancies on the council are filled in the future to eliminate having to wait months for an election to fill the seats.

Two council seats were vacant for over three months. Those positions weren't filled until voters elected Schneider and Tracy on Tuesday.

Cunningham said one possible change would be to allow future councils to fill vacancies by appointment.

The original city charter was approved by voters in November 1981.

Although it has been amended some, council members said it's time to review the charter again.

Schneider said residents expect the charter to be reviewed periodically. Appointing a charter committee will allow more public involvement in efforts to revise the charter, she said.

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