Warren heading to chartered territory?
Some on council question MacPherson’s motivation for change
WARREN — Change is on the mind of at least one councilman, and he has support in the community.
Councilman Ken MacPherson, D-5th Ward, said he’s asking the city’s law department to draft legislation that would begin the process of changing Warren from a statutory form of government to a charter city.
Under a charter form of government, municipalities have more freedom to determine their laws and create governmental structures that fit their needs and demographics. As a statutory city, Warren follows the Ohio Revised Code for most of its governing rules, including the size of council, which is determined by population.
MacPherson said recent developments, including raw sewage backing up in city residents’ basements and when the city failed to purchase enough road salt last year, convinced him of a failure of leadership.
“This has going on for a long time,” MacPherson said. “I don’t blame the employees. It is the leaders.”
MacPherson said angst from some city residents may be addressed by making a change in how the city is run.
“We are not being responsive to the people when we can’t figure out how to keep sewage out of their basements and snow off the streets,” MacPherson said. “These are basic things residents should expect from their government.
“Who’s going to want to come here to invest and create jobs when we can’t figure out simple stuff,” MacPherson said. “Charter governments put experts, accountable professionals in charge of delivering critical services. We have all of the ingredients to bake a but nobody who wants to lead to bake it.”
“I think we should take up the gauntlet and have these discussions,” he continued.
Changing to a charter city will allow changes to be made that haven’t happened under the statutory form of government formed in the 1950s, he said.
This is not the first time an effort has been made to change the city’s form of government to a charter form. Others came in 2003, 2010 and in 2014.
Longtime Councilman Alford Novak, D-2nd Ward, said former Councilman Dan Crouse and himself led one such effort in 2010.
Crouse said that failed, in part, because of a campaign of fear established by those who were against it.
“Many people who worked against the change were city employees afraid of losing their jobs,” Crouse said.
Crouse identifies himself as a proponent of changing the way government is done in the city.
“The only way to do it is becoming a charter city,” he said. “I believe there are too many people on council. It gets to a point at which, when there is so many on council, no one is responsible.
“It takes too long to get things discussed and voted on,” Crouse said. “Too often things are passed by emergency.”
Crouse said the fact that so many pieces of legislation are approved in this way is a sign of a government that needs to have systemic changes.
“Things were done the same way when I as on council more than 10 years ago,” he said. “There are plenty of things that should and need to be passed by emergency, but, for example, annual budgets should never be passed by emergency. The administration and council knows this needs to be done every year. Passing the budget as an emergency is a joke.”
Crouse emphasized it is not just council needing review and changes.
“There is some some level of dysfunction in city departments,” he said. “When council cannot get finance reports from the auditor’s office on time, there is dysfunction. When the city can’t get legislation from the law department on time, there is something wrong.”
Crouse said there should be a minimum set of standards for people who head the auditor’s office, the health department and treasurer’s office.
“Two of these positions are elected, so the only qualifications are convincing enough people to vote for you,” Crouse said. “If you ran a multimillion-dollar business, you wouldn’t select your chief financial officer in this way. You would require them to have a CPA.”
Councilman Larry Larson, D-1st Ward, is critical of the discussions about changing the form of government.
Larson argues that MacPherson is pushing this change because he did not get his way to address concerns expressed by Water Pollution Control Director Ed Haller during a recent council meeting. Haller told council and the administration an unnamed councilman called the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to question why some projects were not being done.
Haller said such complaints could, in fact, cost the city unnecessary funds through the imposition of fines by the Ohio EPA.
MacPherson immediately admitted he was that unidentified councilman and sought to give his side of the issue, but was cut off by council President Jim Graham, who said it was not the time. MacPherson would have to wait until the council’s miscellaneous period at the end of the meeting.
“When some people do not get their own way, they want change,” Larson said. “I believe MacPherson has been like this. Everything does not have to be a political football. I have some things I believe are important not being done — such as the demolition of St. Joseph Hospital on Tod Avenue — but I don’t believe we should change our form of government.”
Novak, one of the leaders of the last effort to change the form of city government, also is critical of the effort being led by MacPherson.
“This, in my opinion, is someone being a crybaby and trying to force change,” Novak said. “He (MacPherson) has a bad reputation when things do not go his way.
“Blaming this director is wrong,” Novak said. “He is trying to make improvements that should have been done years ago, things that should have been done by the last director.”
Novak said when he pushed to have the city’s government changed to a charter, he did so because he felt that various parts of city government were not working properly.
“We were questioning the number of people in government positions,” Novak said. “There are some advantages to a charter form of government. If we do so, we have to begin thinking about what we want from our government. Do we want to have specific requirements for people who become the heads of the auditor’s and the treasurer’s departments or continue to allow those positions to be elected?”
Councilwoman Helen Rucker, D-at Large, said she has been an advocate for charter form of government, but adds it would be a difficult task to take on, especially at this time.
“To do this, we will have to have meetings with the public to educate them on how we are governed today under a statutory form of government and the possible changes that could be made,” Rucker said. “During this time, it is difficult to hold a regular council meeting. We had one canceled this week because of an order by the governor not to have more than 10 people in a room.”
Changing the form of government needs to be taken seriously or not taken at all, she said.
“It should not be taken because someone is mad because they were not allowed to speak,” she said. “What are the motivations behind the effort to make a change?”
Councilman John Brown, D-at Large, described changing the city’s charter as something akin to writing the city’s constitution. The process can take years to complete.
“Council will have to agree to ask residents to vote whether they want to place an initiative on the ballot and who they would want on a charter commission,” Brown said. “If approved, the commission then would decide what changes they would like to see in the operation of the city. Changes can be large or minor, but these discussions will have to take place.”
It is only then that residents will have the opportunity to vote on whether to make these recommended changes or to maintain the current form of government, Brown said.
Brown said he applauds the effort to encourage discussion.
“I’m not under the impression that our government is broken,” Brown said. “Bureaucracy is slow and we are under extreme financial conditions, but it is not broken.
“You don’t just snap your fingers and things are done,” he said.