Over the summer, with a 5-2 vote, Mount Vernon’s city council approved an ordinance that will allow residents to vote to create a commission to write a charter on the November ballot. As election day approaches, Kenyon’s Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) held an informational event on Oct. 9 in the Knox County Memorial Building.
“Anytime you want to change the basic rules by which a political system works, it is going to be highly controversial, and this is a really controversial issue in Mount Vernon,” said Professor of Political Science David Rowe, who serves as the interim director of CSAD. The event was organized to provide more information about what the charter commission is, why it’s on the ballot and what implications it has for the citizens of Mount Vernon.
A charter serves as a constitution for a city and is written by a commission. The document outlines how the city is going to be governed and moves away from a statutory form of government, which operates under state law. For Mount Vernon, implementing a charter could mean having drastic changes, or keeping the system relatively the same; it all depends on what the commission decides.
City Council wrote out charters in 1951 and 1963, which ultimately did not pass. This November, the ballot invites citizens to consider the issue yet again.
Around 120 people attended the event last Tuesday, including Mount Vernon residents, Kenyon staff and students, reporters from the Mount Vernon News and Knox Pages, Mayor of Mount Vernon Richard K. Mavis and President Sean Decatur.
During the first hour of the evening, two municipality experts — Garry E. Hunter and E. Rod Davisson — shared their insights on city charters. Hunter focused on its potential benefits, like providing an opportunity to improve on the efficiency of government, while Davisson, a village manager of Obetz, Ohio, which has a charter, discussed advantages and drawbacks from his experience.
Both Hunter and Davisson agreed that a charter government would not have much impact on the daily life of residents and that citizens could always initiate changes to it.
The event proceeded to a discussion of why this issue was put on the ballot. Four members of City Council took the stage and gave various reasons for the decision, including more flexibility and responsiveness to questions of city administration.
Jeff Gottke, a member of City Council, noted that he voted yes in the interest of exploring different options and would vote against the charter if he does not like what the commission puts forth. He views the charter as an opportunity to give Mount Vernon citizens more power and say in local government.
“[I] heard some things from these two gentlemen tonight that scared me,” Gottke said in reference to Davisson’s and Hunter’s presentations.
Nancy R. Vail was one of the council members who did not vote in favor of the ordinance. In a statement read by Rowe at the Oct. 9 event, she expressed worries that checks and balances may weaken under a charter government.
There are 21 candidates running to be on the commission; if there are enough votes in favor of considering the charter, 15 will be elected.
Tanner Salyers is among the city charter commission candidates. He has read several charters from other cities and believes the one for Tiffin, Ohio could serve as a good model for Mount Vernon. Salyers wants a city government that is “efficient, effective, responsible and responsive” and believes adopting a charter could help ensure this.
Associate Director of Student Engagement Sam Filkins is another candidate for the city charter commission. He views this as part of his civic duty and an “opportunity to look at what works.” Filkins has experience with local politics, as he was previously a member of the Gambier Village Council.
Director of Research and Instruction at Library and Information Services Julia Warga is also a Kenyon staff member running for this position.
Rowe noted that the event was a nonpartisan space and that CSAD did not take a stance on the city charter issue or endorse any of the candidates. Instead, the evening was meant to provide local voters with resources and information about the topic.
“It was clear that this was going to be a controversial topic in Mount Vernon and one of the things CSAD, and Kenyon, is trying to do is have a greater engagement with the surrounding community so that we are not just this isolated college on the Hill, that we actually are a good civic actor in the broader community, and so this was part of that,” Rowe said.