Charter changes hit snag

Published 10:13 am Wednesday, February 8, 2012

FRANKLIN—A subcommittee of the Virginia House of Delegates will consider proposed changes to Franklin’s charter for a third and final time after two city councilmen lobbied against the legislation.

Councilmen Don Blythe and Greg McLemore — dissenters in a 5-2 council vote last year to send the proposed charter amendments to the General Assembly — have spent the last three Wednesdays in Richmond lobbying against the changes, which include a recall provision for City Council members; a noninterference provision designed to fine a council member up to $500 for giving a direct order to a city employee; and a requirement that council members resign from office to run for mayor.

Blythe said his biggest concern is with the interference provision, which he said would prevent council members from even asking questions.

“It will shut down open government,” said the Ward 6 representative. “It limits a council member in who he can talk to and what he can ask.”

Blythe said he supports a recall provision.

McLemore said he opposes all of the changes, even the recall provision, which he at one time supported. He argued that the proposed 15 percent of registered voters in a ward that could force a recall election is too low.

“I don’t agree with the structure of the recall,” McLemore said. “Sometimes we have to make unpopular decisions, and we can’t make those decisions if we’re held under the threat of a recall.”

He agreed, however, that voters should have recourse.

In reference to the other proposed charter changes, McLemore said he believes they were devised as a personal attack against him.

The House Counties, Cities and Towns subcommittee’s questions about the constitutionality of making it a misdemeanor crime for a council member to give direct orders to a city employee have raised questions about other cities’ charters, because the language for Franklin’s charter amendments was taken from charters of other localities, said Delegate Rick Morris, R-Carrollton, whose district includes a portion of Franklin.

“There seems to be some surprise on the committee that charters can criminalize actions of council members,” Morris said.

Morris changed the language of the bill to allow council members to vote to fine a colleague if they believe he or she is being disruptive.

“The objective is to have order at council meetings,” Morris said. “We need civility.”

Even after the rewrite, the committee seems to have problems with the issuance of a fine, said Delegate Roslyn Tyler, D-Jarratt, whose district also includes part of Franklin.

“You don’t put fines in a charter,” she said.

Tyler said the committee also is concerned about the low percentage of ward residents needed to begin the recall process.

“They thought that was very low,” Tyler said. “They didn’t think that was feasible because of Franklin’s small population.”

Tyler said she and Morris planned to work on the bill Tuesday before the committee meets again at 7:30 a.m. today, Feb. 8.

Council members Barry Cheatham and Benny Burgess are leading a delegation to speak in favor of the charter amendments at the meeting.

A similar bill allowing the charter amendments has already passed in the Senate. It passed because no one was there to oppose it, said McLemore, who noted that opponents were given less than a day’s notice to get to Richmond before the Senate vote.

Morris said the Senate version of the bill is unlikely to pass the House, given that it will have to pass the Counties, Cities and Towns Committee before going to the House floor.

Morris believes that if the bill doesn’t make it out of committee today, it will not be passed. Tyler said portions of the bill could still be passed by the committee even if the whole bill is not.

Tyler said there is no emergency clause attached to either version of the bill, meaning the bill, if passed, wouldn’t go into effect until July 1.

On their first trip to Richmond on Jan. 18, McLemore and Blythe rode together in a city-owned vehicle with the permission of City Manager June Fleming. McLemore asked permission during the Jan. 23 City Council meeting to use the city vehicle again but rescinded his motion after Burgess and Cheatham argued against it.

Fleming conceded during the meeting that she violated policy when giving permission to McLemore to drive the car to Richmond. By city ordinance, council members are required to get permission from the council before taking a city-owned car on city business.