A narrow first vote by the city’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen on April 23 to create a city administrator position has sparked debate about changing the city’s charter as well as allowing the mayor to hire a chief of staff.
Leaders voted 7 to 5 to create the position of a city administrator. The position would report to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen and have many of the duties currently held by the mayor. A final vote is scheduled for May 28.
Ward 3 Alderman Russ Edwards said during the April 23 meeting that he wanted an opinion from the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) about whether or not the mayor could hire a chief of staff and assign that person the same duties a city administrator would have.
According to MTAS attorney Elisha Hodge, BOMA can vote through an ordinance to assign certain duties and responsibilities currently held by the mayor to a chief of staff or a city administrator.
“I’d just been told that the chief of staff would be like an assistant,” said Edwards. “I wanted to do my own research.”
Edwards said he thinks it’s important that that person report to the mayor because the mayor is the only citywide elected official.
“I think we need to have a strong executive branch,” he said. “It’s more of a direct accountability to the people.”
During the April 23 meeting, Ward 6 Alderman Eddie Roberson proposed an amendment that would allow for the hiring of a chief of staff. That amendment was voted down 6 to 7.
Ward 4 Alderman Andy Bolt says the chief of staff position would still not solve the issue of professional management.
“That person could be a resource to the mayor, but it doesn’t solve the problem we have of the lack of professional management,” said Bolt. “A city administrator solves the problem of having professional management and giving the board better information so that they can make better decisions.”
A city administrator who reports to 13 elected officials rather than one would be more likely to remove politics from the position, Bolt argues.
Several aldermen have said during BOMA meetings that questions to Mayor Jamie Clary have gone unanswered and that they’ve learned more about what goes on at City Hall through emails Clary sends to constituents than from Clary himself.
Also during the April 23 meeting, Clary raised the question of changing the city’s charter from a general law charter to a home rule charter. Currently 15 of 345 cities in Tennessee have a home rule charter. Hendersonville is one of 66 cities with a general law charter. There are cities with private act charters as well.
Edwards says he’s reached out to MTAS about that issue as well.
“It’s not something I’m pushing for,” said Edwards. “I just think it’s an interesting topic that I wanted to get more information about.”
The Tennessee State Constitution provides that a city’s residents can vote via a referendum to adopt home rule. Once a municipality has adopted home rule it can adopt and amend its own charter – also by referendum, without the approval of the legislature. The process could take a number of years to fully implement.
Clary supporter John Perona has started a petition on social media to change the city’s charter to a home rule charter. Perona says he’s been told by both the local and state election commissions that his online petition – which has garnered about 270 signatures – isn’t valid and that he’ll have to circulate petitions that require names, addresses and signatures of registered voters.
Perona says he’s still not sure if a petition is enough to get the issue on the 2020 November ballot or if a vote of the city’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen is needed.
“We know BOMA isn’t going to vote for an ordinance to put it on the ballot,” he said.
Perona says that he and others want a home rule charter so that issues like hiring a city administrator and term limits for aldermen and the mayor can be put up for a popular vote.
“There are a lot of upset people right now that are furious with this board,” he said. “There’s the perception that they are trying to ram this city administrator position down voters’ throats and give the power to themselves.”
MTAS consultant Gary Jaeckel said that more research needs to be done to see exactly what can and can’t be voted on in a home rule charter, noting that it has been more than 10 years since a city has enacted a home rule charter.
Ward 1 Alderman Mark Skidmore, who has served on BOMA from 1987-2006 and again since 2010, says that changing a city’s charter is not something to be taken lightly.
“I think there’s a misconception that moving to a home rule charter will solve certain issues,” he said. “I don’t believe that it’s a fix-all.”
Skidmore says he believes citizens’ voices are being heard under the current form of government where each of the city’s six wards have two representatives.
“I’m always open to any idea that Hendersonville citizens have for their city,” said Skidmore, “but we’ve only had this charter now since the late 1980’s. A government shouldn’t change every time there’s a problem.”