Salem charter poses more questions than answers

After a great deal of thought and consideration about the potential consequences of changing the current governing structure of the City of Salem, I have come to the conclusion that the charter measure being presented to Salem’s voters on the Nov. 7 ballot poses far more questions than answers.

Though I respect the right of the charter slate to advance their agenda, I remain skeptical that their hopes and desires for a “better run” city government would somehow materialize if only we changed the form and structure of our city government. What is the basis for this skepticism?

Well let’s consider, first, the city’s current low cost of operations as measured by what Salem citizens actually “pay” for their local government:

With our 1 percent base income tax rate and the current, but temporary .25 percent add-on tax that earmarks $6 million in new street paving, we have among the lowest tax rates of any community our size in the region. We also offer our citizens an income tax credit against what they may pay if employed in a neighboring community.

Other cost of operations are similarly low by most any measure of comparison with other communities. Our water and sewerage rates, for example, are among the lowest in the state. We operate a part-time housing office, a part-time health department, and utilize part-time staff at the police department, for instance. Today’s service/safety director does the job that once two persons performed.

Meanwhile, we recently bolstered our illegal drug interdiction efforts by adding two K9 units and the staff and equipment to man them. We are dedicating a full-time agent to the County Drug Task Force. All of our city’s bargaining unit employees and their department heads have earned reasonable cost of living increases in their compensation, without any public rancor or discord. And the city has made modest investments to its infrastructure, financed by a limited, manageable amount of bonded indebtedness. Thank you, Mayor John Berlin.

With all of this, the city still ended last year with a $1.6 million cash carry over, three times the historic average. Thank you, Auditor Betty Brothers.

The most significant city governance reform on the horizon is one that would transfer the city’s inefficient, outdated, manual tax collection functions over to the Regional Income Tax Agency, saving the city $50,000 per year. We don’t need to adopt a charter form of government to accomplish this; we need a new city treasurer and a new city council with resolve.

So to the proponents of the charter: just where are all of the “savings” and “efficiencies” that are to come from a charter and/or which would otherwise make the city government “run better” than it currently does? As that lady in the Wendy’s TV ad put it: “Where’s the beef”?

In the absence of any specifics, why empower a charter commission to hire a consultant for upwards of $40,000 to “frame” or draft up a whole new book of city ordinances which may well redefine our entire governing structure? And, is it right to ask that taxpayer funds be expended for this when more than one half of the city’s voters turned out in the last election to defeat the measure?

This notwithstanding, if we were to proceed with the “framing” stage of a charter form of governance, what might this new governing structure look like anyway? Nobody knows because charter proponents have not publically revealed what they have in mind. That is why I have suggested they are offering us a proverbial “pig in a poke.”

Based upon past discussions, however, here is what we might expect: 1) minimalizing the mayor to a merely ceremonial figurehead with virtually no governing and no veto authority; 2) the transfer of mayoral authority over to the city council, granting it exclusive power to hire/fire a city manager; and 3) the replacement of the city auditor, treasurer, law director and all department heads with new, unelected “management” — providing new department heads with no civil service protection.

There are many other yet unanswered questions as to how far reaching this restructuring could go. But this is the gist of what may well be contemplated by charter proponents as they embark upon their “study.”

In exchange for this, we may forever be surrendering our constitutional right to directly elect our city officials, potentially placing the governing authority of the city into the hands of a simple majority of city council and, indirectly, to an unelected, unaccountable city manager framework, which may or may not cost us more to administer… or save a dime in operating costs.

It is with all of this in mind that the duly elected members of the Salem Republican Central Committee voted to resoundingly reject this charter proposal and to urge a “no” vote on the Nov. 7 charter ballot. The Salem Democratic Central Committee considered the matter independently and voted the same way.

The Salem charter movement, frankly, reminds us too much of Nancy Pelosi’s famous quip about Obamacare: “We must vote for it in order to find out what’s in it.” Well we all know what the outcome of that ticking time bomb has become. Let’s not risk making the same mistake with something as important as the time honored, much cherished self-governance of our own hometown.