Elections Change Charters; Revised Model Coming

Many cities adopted charter revisions in the election on Nov. 3, shepherding in police reforms and changes to the local power structure. In the midst of this constantly changing picture, the National Civic League is revising the Model City Charter that has guided cities for over 100 years.

One of the reasons for our current process to revise the Model City Charter is to infuse principles such as equity and civic engagement in the document. These principles are at the foundation of many charter processes aimed at reforming public safety.

In Portland, OR, for example, charter amendments were adopted that create a new civilian oversight body with the power to discipline and terminate police officers. The measure dissolves the existing police oversight board and creates a new one populated by a diverse group of citizens who have no affiliation with law enforcement.  The new board will have the authority to subpoena documents, compel officers under investigation to testify, and share investigative findings with the public.

Similarly, in San Francisco a charter amendment was passed to create a civilian oversight panel to monitor the Sheriff’s Department as well as an Office of Inspector General, whose role will be to independently investigate allegations of deputy misconduct and in-custody deaths.

Ballotpedia has tracked 20 ballot measures related to police reform, many of which involve changes to city charters.

Among cities with charter revisions creating structural reform, Baltimore is probably the city with the most changes, largely in response to the corruption experienced under former Mayor Catherine Pugh. Voters there approved the creation of a Chief Administrative Officer and gave City Council more budgetary authority and the power to remove mayors or other elected officials for corruption. The seven amendments approved by voters also included a provision to create a charter review commission that would review the city’s charter every ten years.

Baltimore’s reforms track well with the League’s Model City Charter. The first model, published in 1900, pioneered the council-manager form of government and since then we have suggested that any city with a strong mayor system have a chief administrative officer. We have also long advocated nonpartisan local elections, something that Baltimore has not changed as part of its reforms, at least so far. Nearly all city council candidates in Baltimore this year either ran unopposed or received over 80% of the vote, an indication that nonpartisan elections might give voters more choice among competitive candidates.

Other cities with ballot measures involving structural reform include Denver, which passed several measures on Nov. 3 strengthening City Council’s budget powers and requiring approval of cabinet appointments, and King County (Seattle), WA, which changed the sheriff from an elected position to appointed and gave the county council more power over the position.

Cities considering charter changes in the upcoming year include Austin, TX, which is contemplating replacing its council-manager form of government with a strong mayor and other reforms. The changes are being sought by a nonprofit group, Austinites for Progressive Reform, one of whose leaders is quoted as saying the changes will make the city council more “nimble and effective.” Research by former League board member and UT Austin professor Terrell Blodgett and others has found that strong mayor systems are typically less efficient and reduce the influence of city councils.

The National Civic League Model City Charter revision process will continue through next year, and we would welcome your input. Please email [email protected] for more information.

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