There is no one way to go about a city charter review.
But leaving the general public out of the mix — at least early in the process — would seem to be less than an ideal path forward.
Last week, the Killeen City Council continued its series of meetings to review the charter, the 72-year-old governing document for the city.
To date, council members have gone over various sections of the charter, in meticulous detail, with an eye toward presenting voters with a series of proposed changes on next May’s municipal ballot.
Some of the changes have been minor, like moving the annexation process from the city charter to city ordinances, and removing language that no longer applies.
Other proposed revisions are more significant, such as increasing council members’ compensation from the current $100 per month to $1,000 monthly — and $1,500 a month for the mayor.
Another significant change would allow the council, as a body, to recommend disciplining, transferring or firing department heads, the assistant city manager or city secretary. Currently the council has no say in these matters.
If these changes survive the council’s final review, they will be put before voters next spring.
However, it seems reasonable to ask whether the city’s residents should have had a voice in any potential changes well before then.
Such was the case with previous reviews, with the city creating a charter review committee. Such a committee typically includes residents who volunteer to suggest and deliberate changes to the city’s charter. After the committee finishes its work, the proposed changes are placed on a ballot, pending approval from the City Council.
One drawback to this method is that historically, it has been somewhat of a challenge to find residents who are willing to participate in the time-consuming review process.
Another issue is the speed of the process — which understandably would be slower if a committee composed of up to a dozen residents is involved.
In 2004, a Killeen charter review committee of eight appointees began meeting in late October and approved its list of proposed changes in January 2005. The city council reviewed them the following week and approved the final ballot measures in late February.
The council’s current charter review sessions started on Sept. 26, with the final sections of the charter to be discussed at a Nov. 30 meeting. A public hearing on the proposed revisions is set for Dec. 13, with several council members holding town halls as well.
However, it’s likely that a large review committee — with differing priorities and viewpoints — would have faced a major challenge to complete the work using the same time line.
And unlike the 2004 charter review, when the committee didn’t present its recommendations to the council until Jan. 21 of the following year, this time the council wants to be totally finished with the process by Feb. 8, when it is expected to call for a charter election.
Still, facing a time crunch is not an adequate reason to exclude the public from the initial review process.
The current review was set in motion back in April, when then-Mayor Pro Tem Shirley Fleming called for a change in the compensation for the mayor and council members.
That would have been the ideal time to create a charter committee and get the public involved from the start.
However, the council didn’t get down to the business of engaging in the review process until late September. If council members were serious about giving residents a say in the charter changes, they could have opted to create a review committee earlier in the year, providing plenty of time to complete its work.
Without having residents’ input on the front end, it’s hard to know what concerns the public may have had about current charter provisions, or what changes they would have opted to make.
Further, by putting the council solely in charge of the proposed changes, it can create the perception that some of the revisions are self-serving — such as giving the council input on city staff terminations, or increasing council and mayoral pay.
Who knows if those same priorities would come out of a committee composed of residents? And if those changes were proposed, would they make the committee’s final cut?
The voters’ will should always be the deciding factor when it comes to changing the rules governing the city.
With that in mind, it’s particularly disappointing that the council decided to reverse itself last week and not include a proposal to increase the length of council terms from two to three years.
The four council members who opposed the proposed change in term lengths cited factors such as cost, confusion and problems with implementing the change.
Granted, three-year terms will require runoffs if a candidate fails to garner more than 50% of the vote, and those runoff elections cost money.
However, the current two-year terms don’t give new members much time to learn on the job and complete initiatives before it’s time to run for reelection or step down.
Besides, Killeen is the only city in the area — to include Copperas Cove, Harker Heights, Nolanville, Temple and Belton — that does not have three-year terms.
It’s true that Killeen’s situation is complicated by the fact that four council members represent single-member districts and the other three are elected at-large. However, by making a temporary change to the charter’s election provisions, the city could stagger the terms while letting the two-year terms play out.
Ultimately, whether a change in term lengths is costly, confusing or difficult, it should be up to the voters to decide if they want to make the switch.
By not putting the term-length question on the ballot, council members are denying voters the opportunity to shape their own government — and that is unfortunate.
Why is it more important to decide how much the city’s elected officials get paid, than how long they should serve?
Voters should be given a voice on both questions.
None of this is to say that the council hasn’t done a thorough job in reviewing the charter and proposing changes. However, without residents’ involvement in the process to date, it’s impossible to say whether the outcome might have been different.
By law, Killeen’s charter is eligible for review again in two years.
Maybe then, residents will have their say on both ends of the process.