Monday, November 10, 2008

City Charter Reform, Anyone?

I've been talking about this off-and-on for 5-6 years now. Virginia Beach is in a strategic political impasse which has crippled this City Council and the two previous. There are those who think simply putting Will Sessoms in the Mayor's office will break it. While Sessoms will be more aggressive in pushing agenda items, swapping out Mayors won't mitigate the political fallout from actions. In fact, this election no opposed incumbent got a majority of the vote.

So what would I do? Five things for starters:

1. Implement a ward system

At least 7 district seats; you really need 8-9 districts to make the numbers sing. Add all the at-large seats on top of that you want. It would mean a larger Council, but a larger Council would mean a smaller workload for each member.

2. Increase Mayoral powers, including a veto

If you go to a ward system, the Mayor needs a veto to prevent the Balkanization of the Council. As he'd be elected at-large, he can block a tyranny of the majority.

3. A Redevelopment Authority, limited to the Strategic Growth Areas as mapped in the December, 2003 Comprehensive Plan

Not only do I not personally like the idea, but Virginia's new eminent domain law limits the utility of one.

However, I need something to horse trade for a ward system. The current SGAs avoid healthy existing neighborhoods, while promoting redevelopment in the SGAs along the Norfolk Southern Corridor strengthens to case for light rail. Grudgingly offer it in return.

4. Raise the amount of debt the City can issue annually.

The current Charter limit is stuck in 1963 dollars. Needless to say, 45 years of inflation have left the figure silly.

5. Enshrine a Residents Bill of Rights

Both the U.S. and Virginia Constitutions have one, but not our City Charter.


I know I'll get shot at from some quarters for some of the specifics I mentioned. However, to pass a new Charter at referendum (which the General Assembly will almost certainly require), there needs to be something for everyone to vote for in the reform package.

With the election over, I thought I'd toss the idea out for discussion. Don't like something? A suggestion for addition?


Unknown said...

So, Henry, your platform is limiting the Councilmen people can vote for, Sessoms veto power, more condemnation, more debt, and a bill of "rights" to be named later?

You've GOT to be kidding!

Anonymous said...

The limit on debt is 10 mil/yr PLUS the amount of debt retired each year. The city cannot issue more than that combined amount without excedding the council debt/capita self imposed limit

Avenging Archangel said...

Let's see, Brian:

1. You supported a ward system during the 2001 redistricting.

2. You supported a R&HA at least 2003-2006. (You flipped again?)

3. I've heard your good friend Rosemary address the Charter debt issue before.

4. You've spoken of the problems trying to get things done in Philadelphia as an individual, so why not codify individual rights here?

Are you totally happy with the City Charter? If not, what would you change?

Unknown said...

Henry, I'm not talking about my own personal viewpoints here. I may agree or disagree with a few of your issues.

I'm talking about your packaging. What an easy target to sink.

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, who would champion this on the council? I doubt there is a majority who would support a ward system.

Without a sponsor, these ideas are DOA.

Avenging Archangel said...

Anon 1:40,

I'm just tossing the concept out for discussion. There are 3 sitting Councilmen (Dyer, Villanueva, and DeSteph) who have publicly spoken in favor of a ward system previously.

My hope is that other items in the package could draw in enough votes.

Anonymous said...

I don't see the advantage to me. Why would I give up the opportunity to vote for 11 councilpeople so I could vote for only 3 or 4?

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:03

Ahhh! Good Question! It has to do with district accountability. Your duly elected "district representative" in fact is not a district representative other than a residential requirement. In actuality, all members are at-large. Hence, your leverage over your "district representative's" accountability is diluted ten-fold. In other words, there is no district accountability!
Moreover, the eventual makeup of council is not reflective of the individual districts. Ergo, the inequalities of city-delivered services is directly proportional to the socioeconomic composition of the neighborhoods that form the district.

Anonymous said...

I think your ideas have merit and are worth considering and discussing.

The Redevelopment Authority will not pass at the ballot box and state code dictates the language of the stand alone referendum question that is required to pass. The matter cannot be bundled with other matters on a referendum.

I don't see the value in giving the Mayor more powers. And I certainly do not feel that increasing debt is a prudent path forward.

If the city has needs for charter bonds they can place them on the ballot and let the voters decide the matter.

Now I would like to see a line item veto on the budget. I feel that could be a positive step forward for helping to reduce city spending.

What I find curiously missing from your list is a discussion of ending the forula for public schools.

The school board acquires roughly half of the city funds off the top. Perhaps a reform "package" might include ending the automatic formula and have the school retruned to the budgeting process to compete with shrinking tax revenues the same as the rest of the city departments?

For fat too many years the school system ends up with more tax dollars then they can spend.

Yet - they haven't set aside those extra dollars to pay for the new school construction they need.


Avenging Archangel said...

Anon 10:42,

Thanks, you answered that better than I would have.


On the school formula:

1. It's not a Charter issue; it's a Budget policy issue.

2. I support the formula. The Schools have capital needs that you acknowledge. Ending the formula only shifts that money to the City side of the Budget from the Schools side.

On Mayoral powers, one argument at-large voting supporters make is a "tyranny of the majority" line, that is a majority block of wards would shift all spending to them, depriving the others. Since the Mayor would continue to be elected at-large, he couldn't afford to let that happen. Therefore, he'd have to veto any lopsided proposals.

Mayors in my native Maryland have veto power. It's rarely used, and I never saw it abused.

Hadn't thought about a line item veto. Not such a bad idea.

Remember that the R&HA authority is by statute, not constitutional. A new Charter would most likely be done by binding referendum on the Charter as a whole. The General Assembly can exempt Virginia Beach from the statute by putting the R&HA in the new Charter, then crafting a single referendum question on the whole package.

I adamantly oppose a citywide R&HA. However, I need something to horse trade for a ward system, and redeveloping the SGAs serves pro-resident purposes.