Salem Republican, Democratic parties oppose Charter

SALEM — The Salem Area Democrats and the Salem/Perry Township Republicans publicly denounced the Salem Charter Commission proposal this week, with leadership of both political parties voting to oppose the ballot issue.

Columbiana County Republican Party Chairman David Johnson, who lives in Salem and is a member of the Salem and Perry Township Republican Central Committee, issued the group’s slate of endorsements and Patty Colian, secretary of the Salem Area Democrats, penned a written statement on behalf of her party.

Both questioned how there would be any savings, why there needed to be any change and how the government operations could improve considering how well the current form of government is already operating.

“What we have now is working fine. Why should we tear it apart and make up another government?” Colian said by phone.

The vote to oppose the charter commission formation was made by the Salem Area Democrats Central Committee, elected officials and officers. The party also opposed the issue last fall when it was narrowly defeated by voters.

The press release issued by Johnson regarding party endorsements said, “With specific regard to the charter commission, the Salem and Perry Township Republican Central Committee voted resoundingly not to support a charter for the city of Salem. While the committee firmly opposes the use of city funds to pay for the formation of the charter (estimates up to $40-50,000), it also questions the wisdom of replacing the current, statutorily-defined direct-election of city officials with a council-appointed, un-elected city manager and city fiscal officer form of municipal governance.”

Johnson said he planned to offer a more detailed statement on the charter in the form of a column submitted to local newspapers, but when contacted by phone, he made his feelings clear, both as a resident and a party official. The party supported the charter commission issue last fall, but not this time. When asked what changed, he said he started rethinking it when he looked at the actions and comments of some on city council this past year, pointing to a statement made about the police chief and a request that he be fired. The incident blew up during deliberations over the marijuana issue.

He also started to think, where are the savings going to come from? There’s been talk about how a city manager would likely make a salary over $100,000. He said he’s uncomfortable with forging ahead with something that’s going to cost $50,000 to frame and not knowing what the new government will look like.

One of the problems he said he had was all the discussion about just wanting to study the idea of a charter, pointing out that’s not what the ballot question says. The ballot question asks if the voter favors the formation of a charter commission to frame a charter. There’s been no concrete explanation of where the savings will occur. He’s also concerned about losing the ability to elect a strong mayor and turn over power to council, losing the checks and balances in place now.

The city has a low income tax, some of the lowest water and sewer rates in the state, recently added two K-9 units and has a member on the Columbiana County Drug Task Force.

“It’s not like we’re spending money recklessly in this town. I don’t see how we can achieve an any more efficient operation,” Johnson said.

He did say that the people running for the charter commission were some of the finest citizens of Salem. He didn’t want to disrespect them and understands they want what’s best for Salem. He said everybody wants what’s best for Salem, that’s the bottom line, but he has reservations about transferring power to council and losing the veto power of the mayor.

“There’s something about having a direct say through the ballot box that I say is very cherished,” Johnson concluded.

In her statement on behalf of the Salem Area Democrats, Colian urged all Salem voters to join them in voting against the formation of a charter commission.

“We citizens of Salem have enjoyed the benefit of a very effective city government going back as far as anyone can remember and changing to a charter government could jeopardize that. The special interest group that is pushing for the charter continually says that maybe the government could be better if we change, but that inherently means that maybe it could be worse as well. We just don’t feel that it is worth the risk at this point especially when what we have now is working so well,” she wrote.

She said the group pushing the charter issue now is the same group that pushed for it last year when it was defeated.

“They advocated for a form of government that would eliminate the checks and balances that we now have in place between our city officials and would consolidate all the power and decision making in the city with a small group. The consequences of that could be disastrous. Just this year we had some council members upset with the police chief over his statements to the press concerning drug issues from a law enforcement perspective on action council had taken or proposed to take. Despite the fact that our current police chief is one of the most effective that we have ever had and has completely realigned his department to combat the city drug problem, those council members demanded that he be fired. Fortunately the checks and balances in our current city government prevent council from having that authority and we still have our chief. Under the government proposed last year by the same special interest group pushing the charter this year, the chief could be gone. We just can’t risk that.” she wrote.

According to Colian, there would be less accountability to citizens because there would be less elected positions to answer directly to the people if the form of government being discussed by some were adopted with a city manager. Some of the current 12 elected positions would be eliminated and those hired in positions would answer to the city manager or council, not the people. The citizens wouldn’t have the option to remove an appointed city official that they do with an elected official who could be voted out.

She explained that having city officials elected by the citizens “creates a built in system of checks and balances designed to prevent improper action or actions contrary to the best interest of the citizens from happening. In other words, each elected official is looking out for us and making sure the others are doing the same. If through a charter government our officials are no longer elected but are merely appointed, then their loyalty will not be to the citizens but rather to whomever appointed them and could fire them. Is that really best for Salem?’

” As an example, some members of council wanted to spend an approximate $10,000 to $15,000 of taxpayer money to push the charter issue back onto the May Primary Election this year despite its defeat in November. The city law director, who works for you and not council, pointed out over stiff opposition from some members, that he did not believe it was an appropriate use of taxpayer money due to the fact that the citizens had just rejected it and that if council merely waited a few months and put the issue on the general election ballot in November they would not have to spend that taxpayer money and waiting would allow any citizen much more time to submit their petitions to be a member of the charter commission if they were interested. If the government changed to a charter as proposed by this group last year and the city law director worked for council, or the city manager they appointed, would there have been any incentive for him to speak up on the citizen’s behalf since he wouldn’t work for you? Would he have been able to speak up without risk of getting fired? We need to keep city officials working for us, and the loss of checks and balances in our city government is just bad for Salem,” Colian wrote.

She said that city officials would not have to be citizens of Salem, but currently all officeholders must live in the city. She also said the group pushing for the charter now claims there’s no specific form of charter government in mind when there was a push last year for a city manager form of government. She also said the idea of forming a commission “just to explore the idea of a charter is misleading,” since the charter commission would be charged with putting together a proposal within a year for citizens to consider.

Colian also pointed out that if the charter commission is formed and money is spent for a consultant, that money will be lost if the voters ultimately reject the charter.