Chattanooga fails to explain Charter changes

Chattanooga fails to explain Charter changes

February 23rd, 2013 in Opinion Free Press

How the Charter amendment looks on the ballot:

Shall Ordinance No. 12677 to amend the Charter of the City of Chattanooga be approved pursuant to Article XI, Section 9 of the Constitution of Tennessee (Home Rule Amendment) so as to delete archaic provisions, modernize its provisions, to conform to state laws of general application, and to generally to improve the Charter?

- For the amendment

- Against the amendment

In addition to city council races and the mayoral contest, Chattanooga's March 5 ballot contains an opportunity for voters to enact a number of useful changes to clean up antiquated language in the City Charter. Unfortunately, almost no one understands exactly what would happen if the Charter changes are voted into effect. What exactly, many Chattanoogans have asked, are we being asked to vote on?

Just looking at the wording on the ballot won't help much. That's because it only says that the Charter Amendment is intended to "delete archaic provisions, modernize its provisions, to conform to state laws of general application, and to generally to improve the Charter?"

Wait ... what?

State law limits local charter amendment explanations to a 200-word summary on the ballot. That's barely enough to describe a few small Charter changes, much less the nearly 30 changes that Chattanooga is asking residents to consider to the Charter on Election Day. The Charter explanation on the March 5 ballot is only 53 words. It's as though the folks at the city attorney's office gave up on explaining the proposal before they really tried.

On Thursday afternoon, in an attempt to supply answers to the Charter amendment confusion, the mayor's office released a generic and largely unhelpful explanation of what the Charter amendments would do: "The proposed changes that are presented in the March 5 Charter referendum will help clear up and clarify the City Charter."

The release continued, "Much of Chattanooga's Charter is more than 50 years old and some as much as 143 years old and no longer useful. This referendum proposes to eliminate the unnecessary sections and make minor changes to the remainder."

That sounds fine, but it still doesn't tell us exactly what would be eliminated or changed in the City Charter.

The release also contained a link to a page on the city's website that allows residents to review the changes. Maybe this would finally answer questions about how, exactly, city leaders want to amend the Charter.

Well, it does ... if you're up for reading 62 pages of legalese and lawyer-speak.

Since the city has failed to explain to residents in detail what the Charter amendment does, we will.

The amendment puts the city's pension plan in the correct place in the Charter; modernizes the terminology used to define city council districts (replacing the term "wards" with "districts"); makes the city's property, sales and alcoholic beverage taxing authority consistent with state law (don't worry -- it won't increase taxes); deletes archaic language about banking and bonds; and eliminates a couple of outdated boards and commissions that haven't been active in decades.

The proposed charter changes also:

• End aid to railroads (which hasn't been given since the 1890s).

• Update a handful of provisions related to issues such as zoning, lawsuits and city borrowing in which state law now supersedes city rules.

• Allow firemen to legally take the amount of vacation days they are entitled to.

• Delete the references to $500 fines, because under state law Chattanooga does not have authority to create a fine in excess of $50.

• Eliminate the penalty for "Sabbath breaking."

• Abolish funding for city functions of days gone by such as a workhouse and a city band.

There is not a single thing in the Charter amendment that is objectionable. In fact, the city should be applauded for taking steps to rid the Charter of outdated functions and unnecessary and incongruous language.

Unfortunately, even if the Charter changes are a good thing -- and they are, the Free Press encourages voters to vote for the amendment -- it's hard to ignore what a pitiful job the city has done in explaining what the Charter amendment would actually do. Chattanooga voters have been done a disservice and, sadly, it may prevent these much-needed changes to the Charter from passing.