Every election cycle the importance of our Charter is touted by candidates. This is right because Mayors and Council Members will come and go, but the institutions that make up our city will remain. Respect for those institutions, residents and the offices that elected officials hold ensure the endurance of Wildwood and its vision.
But lately our City has been suffering from power play, gotcha politics. There are innuendo and snarky comments at the dais, and the welfare of the City seems to take second or third place to winner-take-all antics. Some elected officials are constantly ripping at the roots of our City as we are seeing unprecedented disrespect for the office of the Mayor and the Council, all the while waving the City's Charter.
There have been epic jurisdictional battles. Often the Mayor is accused of overstepping his authority, sometimes members of the Council seem dead set upon claiming almost unlimited powers for the legislative body. Often, the Charter is used as the rationale for these power grabs.
For example, at a January 9th committee meeting I suggested that although we have a strong Council according to Charter, its powers are not absolute. This inspired one councilman to respond angrily by holding up the Charter, waiving it and stating that he doubted I have ever read it! He was so incensed he would not even talk to me after the meeting.
The Councilman's rage notwithstanding, I stand by my claim that there is shared power according to the Charter. According to the Charter's very own overview section, "the Charter of the City of Wildwood continues a Mayor-Council-City Administrator form of government with powers distributed and balanced." Moreover, it is also stated in the Final Thoughts From the Charter Commission, "this Home Rule Charter is designed to retain the most important features of the City's current form of government and add new powers, create checks and balances and ensure a responsive government controlled by the citizens of Wildwood."
Since checks and balances are a most American notion, it is no surprise the Charter provides for a balance of power. Yet despite what is written in black and white there are those who claim that it is just not so. Once, as I was leaving a Council meeting where I had suggested that we should be able to offer a modicum of trust to our Mayor as our City's Chief Executive, a resident grabbed my arm and said, "you realize the Mayor is not the Chief Executive, you are!"
I respect the gentleman's right to have an opinion, especially since he is a very active resident and most likely a city founder himself. That said, according to Article IV of the Charter, "the Mayor will remain as Chief Executive of the City and will attend and preside at the Council meetings."
I believe that the misconception that the Council is all powerful comes from the well-worn refrain that we have a "weak mayor, strong council" form of government. To be clear, I am not arguing against the fact that we have a Charter city with a strong Council, but it is undeniable that according to the Charter we do have "checks and balances", and "powers distributed and balanced."
All of this is now coming to a head as the City seeks a replacement for City Administrator.
On January 3rd the City of Wildwood held a special meeting in an attempt to install co-interim city administrators while a search is completed for a new full-time replacement for Ryan Thomas who resigned as City Administrator last December.
The ad-hoc committee tasked with finding candidates to fill the position put forward a resolution that sought to have Planning & Parks Director Joe Vujnich and current City Treasurer Stephen Cross serve as co-interim city administrators.
The task was complicated by several factors. To begin with the current municipal code does not allow for a city employee to serve in the capacity of Treasurer. Since the city administrator position is that of an employee, Mr. Cross would have to resign his position as treasurer to serve a a co-interim city administrator. Next, since Mr. Cross wishes to continue to serve as treasurer, a role he has filled for 15 years, he would have to be renominated by the mayor for the position after competing his service as co-interim city administrator.
Although it seems rather straightforward that the Treasurer could resign and then be renominated, several council members were concerned that the Mayor would not renominate Cross. As an attempt to handcuff the Mayor, Councilman Woerther put forward language to a resolution that would in effect automatically reappoint Mr Cross after his service as co-interim administrator.
This proposal was found by the City's Attorney to be in conflict with Wildwood's charter since the Charter gives the Mayor the authority to nominate a treasurer, and requires the advice and consent of the Mayor for the appointment of a City Administrator.
As a Council Member, I offered a compromise that would not violate the Charter and was something that Mr. Cross told the Council would be acceptable to him. It failed and as a result the Mayor will be vetoing the ordinance passed by the Council since according to the City Attorney it is in violation of the Charter. Given that the bill is in conflict with the Charter, the Mayor is right to veto it. The Mayor and Council Members take an oath to uphold the Charter. Moreover, according to the Charter, a possible penalty of violating it is a removal from office.
But now, some members of the Council are going to attempt an override of the rightful veto, even thought the City Attorney has stated that such an override would have no authority regarding the appointment of a City Treasurer or a City Administrator.
Those who argue for the override base their argument on a single section of the Charter. They cite section 3.1 of ARTICLE III , which states that "all powers of the City shall be vested in the Council unless specifically provided otherwise in this Charter. The Council shall provide for the exercise of these powers and for the performance of all duties and obligations imposed on the City by law. The Council may to the fullest extent permitted by law delegate any of the powers vested herein to such board, commission, or officer of the City as it may deem appropriate, advantageous, or necessary for the proper and efficient undertaking of the public business."
Of course they emphasize the last sentence stating "delegate any of the powers vested herein," which seems pretty broad. But using this single statement to justify unlimited powers seems naive at best if you consider context. The same section states that "all powers of the City shall be vested in the Council unless specifically provided otherwise in the Charter."
It is clear that the power to appoint is checked by Subsection (a) of Section 5.1 of Article V , which states that, "A majority of the members of the City Council with the advice and consent of the Mayor shall appoint a City Administrator for an indefinite term and shall fix the conditions of his or her appointment."
Clearly, without the advice and consent of the Mayor a City Administrator cannot be appointed. This also happens to be the opinion of the City's Attorney. Of course there are those who believe they know better than the attorney and that as a council we should ignore his advice and follow our own interpretation of the law. Such a departure from rationality brings to mind the old saying that "he who represents himself in legal matters has a fool for a client."
This may all seem overly technical, but there consequences at sake that going beyond setting the bad precedent of ignoring the Charter and our attorney. It may invite real risks. If the Council opts to override a veto and install a City Administrator or Co-Interim Administrators outside of the authority granted by the Charter, we may be creating liability for the City. Not only does this cross a line regarding the Charter, it potentially puts our City and its employees in real legal jeopardy.
Unlike some founders I may not have written the Charter, but I can read it. Thus I will be voting no to override the Mayor's veto on January 14th. I believe it is the right thing to do for the integrity of our City's institutions, its employees and residents.