Since the Charter of the City of Portsmouth was approved and enacted in 1928, relatively few changes have been made to this 85-year-old document. Over the years, however, financial, legal and management practices have changed considerably. In addition, state and federal requirements have expanded the city’s responsibilities; thus creating new or expanded departments.
In 1996, various charter revisions were recommended by a Charter Review Committee. For reasons unknown today, none were presented to the voters for their approval.
On the ballot this Nov. 5 are two charter amendments placed on the ballot by City Council. The first, approved by Council on June 24 by a 4-1 vote (one absent) concerns the salary of council members and president of council; not changed since 1928. The second, approved by Council on June 6 by a 5-0 vote (one absent) concerns a selection of revisions recommended in 1996.
The City Charter of 1928 set the salary of council members at $600 and the president of council at $1,000 per year. This salary structure has never been changed. Beginning Jan. 2, 2014, the president of council shall also be Mayor when the new City Manager comes on board. The salary for the Mayor was set at $500 in 1928. This salary has been continually changed.
This first charter amendment asks voters to increase the salary of council members to $5,000 and the president of council/Mayor to $6,000 per year. In addition, the amendment calls for eliminating all health insurance for all members of council. It would be made available to members should they wish to pay the full amount it costs the city; not the premium paid by full-time employees but the actual, full cost.
The current potential costs for council salaries and health insurance totals $117,825 per year and has averaged an increase of 15 percent per year in health insurance costs. The proposed salaries would cost $31,000 per year; with a potential increase of 3 percent per every five years as they would be tied to the average of pay increases for the Fire and Police chiefs (not union contracts). The potential savings of this charter amendment in the first year alone is $86,285. This savings will go a long way in helping the city reduce the current health insurance fund deficit.
The second amendment reflects recommendations of the 1996 Charter Review Committee. These changes would correct spelling errors, departmental errors, election qualifications for the City Auditor and City Solicitor and eliminating the pledge of those who sign a candidates petition to vote for that candidate. Specifically, these changes are:
A. Section 31. Responsibility of (City) Manager – Powers of Appointment and Removal: add: … “subject to Collective Bargaining Agreements…” This change reflects the addition of Collective Bargaining Agreements which were not in effect in 1928.
B. Section 32. Removal of Officers and Employees: Spelling change of “therefor” to “therefore,” change word “supply” to “provide,” change “Director” to “Secretary” of Civil Service. These changes correct spelling, word usage and the correct title of the person responsible for Civil Service.
C. Section 41. Election, Qualifications and Duties of City Solicitor: add “shall have been for at least three (3) years immediately preceding his election and during the term of his office shall continue to be a resident of the City of Portsmouth, Ohio, …” This change reflects the qualifications of other elected city officials.
D. Section 42. Election, Qualifications and Duties of City Auditor: add same change as in Section 41.
E. Section 144. Petitions for Place on Primary Election Ballot: Remove “(each) signer thereto thereby pledges himself to support and vote for the candidate whose name is therein presented for a place on the ballot, and…” This change would, if approved, mean that any registered voter may sign a candidate’s petition to run for city office without having to pledge their vote for her or him.
These charter amendments are presented to the voters for their approval in order to 1) reduce expenses, 2) bring council salaries in line with other small city councils, 3) update and correct charter language and 4) eliminate the onus of a “pledge to vote for” when voters sign a candidate’s petition to run for office.
I ask that you approve these efforts to correct, update and improve upon our City Charter when you vote on Nov. 5.
Kevin W. Johnson is a member of Portsmouth City Council, 1st Ward