Council, Charter Task Force Discuss Ballot Questions

The Wellington Village Council and its Charter Review Task Force met in a joint session Monday, July 27 to discuss items proposed to be put to referendums in March.

The task force, headed by Wellington pioneer Ken Adams, a member of the original charter committee, has been working for the past year on possible measures for consideration.

The council must approve the ballot questions this fall for the March 2016 ballot.

Village Attorney Laurie Cohen explained that only six questions had been posed to the council, but the task force had gone through the charter thoroughly and discussed the six questions carefully. She also presented a 10-page summary of the task force discussions.

“Even though they may not have recommended that something be presented on the ballot, it does not mean they did not fully consider whether or not it should be changed,” Cohen said. “The items recommended by the task force have been presented to you. You can revise those, you can add to them, you can take away from them, depending on what you ultimately feel is important to send to the voters.”

Councilman Matt Willhite asked about cleaning up language in the charter that is no longer appropriate, and Cohen said that might be done in a separate referendum in order to keep it simple.

Adams said the task force had focused on specific questions that were clearly stated in order not to confuse voters. “We thought we could get a more accurate voting result if they know specifically what they are voting for,” he said.

Task Force Member Michael Napoleone said the charter is very long and that his fellow members did not want to burden voters with reading the entire document in order to decide on questions — and, if they disagreed on one item, vote to reject the entire slate.

“We thought ‘less is better,’” he said, adding that the charter needs some cleaning up, but that the task force tried to focus on specific questions that would not confuse voters.

Mayor Bob Margolis said he was inclined to agree with Willhite about cleaning up the language, explaining that this was the only comprehensive charter review he recalled.

“Last time there was a charter revision, it was a council discussion that went to voters,” Margolis said. “Is it nitpicking? Probably, but it’s a question that has to be challenged.”

He also stressed that their meeting Monday was the only joint meeting and that future meetings would be at public hearings conducted by the council, and hoped that it would be more interactive.

“They need to hear from us what our opinions are,” Margolis said. “I know that they made recommendations. They made valid initiative recommendations, but I thought they were going to hear what we had to say also.”

The first question posed by the task force was regarding council compensation. It asks whether the requirement should be changed from a supermajority of four votes to a simple majority to change how much council members are paid. When the question comes up, it usually leads to a long public debate, which has made council members wary to approach the subject.

Task Force Member Francine Ramaglia said the issue is really about politics and that, drawing from her experience as the village’s former finance director, she personally thought provisions for council compensation should be more clearly defined and regularly scheduled.

“I feel there should be a regular review,” Ramaglia said. “The concern was it put everyone in a public position to discuss salaries.”

Vice Mayor John Greene said council compensation is not a great concern to him because he just wants to perform the public service.

Adams pointed out that compared to other municipalities, Wellington’s council compensation is low, and added that most municipalities do not have term limits, as Wellington does.

Willhite said he favored council compensation because the cost of serving should not come out of the council member’s pocket.

The next question asks whether council vacancies should be filled in the same manner as one in the mayor’s office, which is a disparity that was created when voters approved having an elected mayor rather than a council-elected one.

Currently, the mayor can only be replaced by a special election, while council vacancies are filled by appointment. The charter change would fill council vacancies by special election as well.

Willhite said he favored treating council members and the mayor the same, and Councilwoman Anne Gerwig agreed.

The third question regarding calling special council meetings would eliminate a 72-hour notice and require only “reasonable notice,” in accordance with state law.

Willhite said he opposed that question. “I feel giving ample time is only fair,” he said.

Cohen explained that the provision would only apply to special meetings and that the thinking of the task force was there may be special situations where 72 hours’ notice is not possible, citing the recent purchase of the Lake Wellington Professional Centre as an example.

Greene said he would support posing the question to voters.

“Technology is different than it was,” he said. “We have the ability to get the notice out more quickly,” he said.

But Greene questioned the current charter provision that the mayor or, in his absence, the vice mayor can call a special meeting, and said he would prefer that only a majority of council members could do so.

Councilman John McGovern supported asking the question of voters but would prefer a more definitive time frame than “in accordance with state law.”

A question that led to a lot of discussion was whether the charter should be amended to include a provision protecting the Equestrian Preserve Area.

The ballot summary explains that the original charter makes no reference to the Equestrian Preserve Area. The proposed amendment would permit landowners to apply to be voluntarily included in the preserve upon a majority vote of the council, but would prohibit removal without a supermajority vote.

Willhite said the charter talks about protecting distinctive features of the village.

“I certainly think, and every council has recognized, that it is a distinctive aspect of our community,” he said. “We should have certain areas defined.”

Cohen said the amendment references a map that would need to be updated frequently.

Greene asked if anyone could apply to become part of the equestrian overlay, and Cohen said legally they could.

Gerwig said she did not want to create an illusion that anyone can come in.

“That is the danger and what I am concerned about,” Greene agreed.

McGovern asked about a proposal that was rejected by the task force to add the Equestrian Preserve Committee to the charter, and Cohen said the Equestrian Preserve Committee wanted something in the charter that would protect it from future councils, but pointed out that the task force was unanimously against that because it would undermine the authority of the council.

Greene said he favored including the question on recognizing the Equestrian Preserve Area. “The equestrian community is what we have that sets us apart,” he said.