West Jeff charter changes up for a vote this fall

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(Posted July 8, 2021)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

This fall, West Jefferson residents will vote on changes to the village’s charter, the document that sets the rules by which the village is governed.

Every five years, the mayor appoints a charter review committee that is then confirmed by village council. The committee is tasked with going through the charter and recommending changes if they decide any are necessary.

After 24 meetings over the past 4.5 months, the 2021 committee finalized its recommendations on June 30, and council adopted the recommendations on July 6. The changes will appear on the Nov. 2 general election ballot. Voters will decide on the changes as a bundle rather than vote on each change individually.

The committee includes Karl Frybarger, David George, Jeff Hockenbery, Susan Krumm, John Lepard, Mark Pelphrey and Herman Stanley.

“We all worked together really, really well,” said Frybarger, who has served on the the review committee three times and chaired this year’s group.

“We invited not only the general public to comment, we also invited every department head in West Jefferson, plus council members and the mayor. We allowed them to have the floor and voice any concerns they have with the charter.”

All of the committee’s recommendations stemmed from the feedback they received from village leaders.

The proposed changes are as follows:

Missed Council Meetings–The charter permits village council members to miss up to six regular meetings per calendar year. They are not paid for those missed meetings.

The committee is proposing that council members could not miss more than four regular meetings per year but would be paid for up to four missed meetings.

“Council meets two times per month which is 24 times per year. We felt it was excessive that they can miss six meetings which amounts to 25 percent of their job,” Frybarger said.

Removal of Council Members–The charter requires that any council member who misses more than six regular meetings in a calendar year be recommended for removal. There is an exception for military service.

In addition to reducing the missed-meetings limit to four, the review committee is recommending the rules include an exception for serious health conditions. In both cases, the mayor would appoint someone to temporarily fill the vacancy.

Council Vacancies–The review committee determined the charter is unclear when it comes to when an unexpired term for a council seat should appear on the ballot and, therefore, how long a person appointed to a vacancy serves.

They recommend an unexpired term, whether for a ward seat or an at-large seat, appear on the next available general election ballot, no matter if it’s a year in which that particular seat would normally be up for election. This way, Frybarger said, the public would get involved more quickly in filling the vacancy by popular vote.

Restrictions on mayor hirings and appointments–The charter does not permit the mayor to hire or appoint anyone who is an immediate family member of an elected village official, department head or assistant, or ranking officer of the police department. The charter lists who is considered an immediate family member.

The review committee is suggesting that aunt, uncle, sister, and significant other be added to the current list and that step-relative be removed.

If approved, the new list would include: spouse or significant other, parent, parent-in-law, aunt or uncle, son, son-in-law, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, sister-in-law, brother, brother-in-law, maternal or paternal grandparents, grandson, first cousin, niece or nephew.

Economic Development–The committee recommends the creation of an economic development and redevelopment department, along with creation of a job title and job description for the department’s director.

“West Jefferson is experiencing a ton of growth. We really decided we needed a person who was dedicated just for that,” Frybarger said.

The change would allow the public safety director, who currently assists with some of the economic development duties, to focus more on infrastructure. It would update the job title and duties of the current position of building, zoning and planning director. That person reports to the mayor and public service director. With the recommended changes, the director of the new department would report only to the mayor.

Notice of meeting relocations–Currently, the village must advertise changes in government meeting locations in a newspaper. The proposed change would give the village additional options, including posting such notices to the village website, on social media, on physical and electronic message boards, and/or on the front door of the water department.

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