Havre Daily News
The Havre City Council is again considering the creation of a charter for the city, a move that city voters considered and rejected a decade ago.
Former Bozeman Mayors Ken Weaver and Judy Mathre, co-founders of the Local Government Center at Montana State University-Bozeman, met Wednesday with Havre Mayor Bob Rice, five members of the City Council and a few residents to discuss the writing of a charter and answer questions.
The issue must be approved by voters, but City Council members agreed it is too complex an issue to put on the ballot as soon as the Nov. 8 general election.
With a charter, Weaver said, Havre would be able to structure its local government and clarify roles and responsibilities for the mayor and City Council. Without a charter, Havre is confined to general powers laid out in state code, a "recipe," as Weaver called it.
"We think the charter is a real good idea," he said. "Throw out the recipe and come up with your own. There are no disadvantages to having a charter. If there were any, I'd tell you. But there aren't."
With a charter, Weaver said, Havre would be given the power of self-governance, enabling the city to define elected officials' terms and set the size of council.
Havre could choose from a variety of options in how it wants to set up its government. Some municipalities have city managers who run the nuts-and-bolts operations of the city, leaving the mayor to running council meetings and having ceremonial responsibilities. Other cities are set up as Havre is now, in which the mayor is in charge of the executive branch. Weaver said some cities have made the transition to city managers because of the immense amount of time the mayor's job can take. He cautioned that such a change is not easy.
Havre could also hammer out the duties of council members. A mayor or manager could be in charge of department heads, Weaver said, or the City Council could have more oversight.
The city could also decide to include a provision that would eliminate Havre's four wards and have the city elect at-large council members.
"Theoretically, it's a wonderful question of representation," Weaver said. "Railroad towns tend to go with wards. It's an interesting question."
The charter cannot contain anything prohibited by the state and national constitutions, and it cannot change court procedures or violate election and contract law, he added.
All of the provisions would be spelled out in specific points in the document, making them much easier to understand than the legal language of the state code, he added.
"The clarity is where it's at," Weaver said. "I can't overstate that."
"Those communities that have charters - in a way, it stabilizes their government," Mathre said.
Self-governance would also give the city powers it doesn't have under state code, Weaver said. For example, if Havre were now presented with the opportunity to operate a hydroelectric turbine or a wind farm, it could not own or operate that infrastructure - much less sell excess electricity to generate revenue - because those powers are not spelled out in state code, he said.
Weaver said voters commonly worry that a city charter will create more government at the local level. In fact, he said, cities are able to include provisions in their charters that limit certain powers. Taxes, fees, costs and debts can be limited, or requirements for public hearings on those items may be put in place, he said.
"You could write in almost any restriction on that government," Weaver said.
Future amendments, which also require voter approval, could change, add or remove specific items in the charter, Mathre added.
City Council member Jack Brandon said he thinks a charter is something that needs to be carefully studied, and there is not adequate time to consider the issue before the November election.
"We need to look to the future for one thing," Brandon said. "I know the charter will give us more self-governing powers. If you don't have a charter, you're locked into state statutes.
"We don't want to rush into it," he added. "Right now is not a good time to do it. We have some new council people coming in, and I think we need to bring those people into the decision about the charter."
Havre placed a charter on the ballot about 10 years ago, along with two other issues that were tied to its passage, city clerk Lowell Swenson said.
Mathre said the charter issue failed 1,578 to 802.
Swenson said the other two issues - one would have made Havre elections nonpartisan, and the other would have required city workers to live within city limits - passed but were not instituted because the charter failed.
Weaver said the City Council has the power to put a charter on the ballot, and 15 percent of the number of people who voted in the previous election have the same power.
He suggested that council members create an ad hoc committee to explore the possibility further. For a fee to cover his own costs, Weaver could assist Havre in that process by providing model charters and advice. He agreed that the issue is not pressing.
"Take your time, build your charter and build community support," Weaver said. "Keep it simple. Let the people know what they're voting on and why. If you don't have problems to solve, it's a ... good time to work on the future."
Weaver and Mathre co-founded the Local Government Center 20 years ago to help strengthen Montana's local governments and provide training, technical assistance and research to officials. Both have held the office of mayor and city commission member in Bozeman.
On the Web: www.montana.edu/wwwlgc