Tuesday is election day for Sikeston residents and at least according to some, the outcome will set the course for our community's future. The key issue on Tuesday's ballot is the adoption of a new Home Rule Charter that rewrites municipal history for our community. The eventual outcome will hinge on whether Sikeston voters want to adopt this new form of government or whether they are satisfied with the form that has governed our community for the past 40 years.
The 26-page Charter document - if approved Tuesday - would indeed change city government. No longer would our city council be elected from an at-large population. The Charter would establish four separate, geographic wards to represent various parts of the community. If approved, it would be a year before those wards are designated.
A separate question on Tuesday's ballot - assuming that voters approve the Charter itself - would ask whether voters want the city council to chose from among themselves one person to serve as mayor or whether the voters want to select a mayor separately. This issue, more than the Charter language itself, has divided the Charter Commission and the community.
The bulk of the remaining Charter language allows for a voter referendum where issues of importance to the voters can be brought for a public vote. The Charter also establishes a long list of dos and don'ts on the way to conduct city business. And after lengthy and heated debate, the Charter calls for some boards - specifically the Board of Municipal Utilities - to remain independent and autonomous, which retains the current policy that governs this board and others.
Here's what disappoints me. Interest in the Charter appears to be exceedingly low. Less than a handful of people attended the public hearings on the Charter and still fewer requested copies of the Charter. An independent and highly unscientific polls this week reportedly shows virtually no interest, knowledge or understanding of the Charter. And that's sad.
Granted, the Charter is not fascinating reading. But it does chart a course for our city and you may not like that new course. Yet without that information, how can you vote one way or the other? As a newspaper, we've tried to provide details of the Charter and the countless Charter meetings and reported on each step of the process. Yet the interest level is woefully low.
Approved or not Tuesday, I believe Sikeston will adopt a ward system of representation. If the Charter is defeated as some predict, city leaders have indicated clear support for a change to a ward system. I favor wards personally though I doubt seriously that some geographic balance on the council will somehow overnight solve our problems. It won't. But it may widen the participation and, if so, then it's worth the effort.
I share the concerns over a mayoral election on a popular basis as well as the three-year term which I view as much too long. The title of mayor here is ceremonial with no more power to set the agenda than any other council member. Since it's ceremonial, I accept the argument that the council electing one of their members to the post is preferable.
I would reject the Charter in an instant if there was any movement to attack the independence of the Board of Municipal Utilities. That body must remain independent to assure Sikeston residents of the lowest possible utility rates available. If it were to lose that independence and grant the city access to its revenues, I firmly believe our rates would rise. But the Charter Commissioners in the majority recognized this potential and this Charter should maintain that utility's independence.
In short, the Charter is flawed like any other document by committee. But the flaws may not be sufficient to reject it because it does represent in many ways a forward movement. I caution as I have from the beginning that the Charter will not solve all of our problems. It will however provide a framework that may well allow us to move in an improved direction.
I'll vote Tuesday but like many of you, I may not decide my vote on this issue until I walk into the voting booth. But I will keep in mind that I want only the best for my community and if the Charter represents that direction, it should have your vote.
And finally, regardless of the outcome Tuesday, the 13-member Charter Commission should be commended for their tireless effort and their dedication to this community. These fine men spent countless hours of devotion to a difficult task. They did their job well. And out of their efforts will come a new course and direction that will ultimately benefit all of the residents of Sikeston. For that, we thank them one and all.