SIKESTON - Home Rule Charter commissioners received feedback from the public at the first of two public meetings scheduled for that purpose.
Commissioners presented the latest draft of the 26-page charter for approximately 20 people Monday. They began with a review of a handout with the charter's preface and a "Charter at a Glance" section highlighting seven major items addressed in the charter.
Harry Sharp, commission chairman, said the commission was looking for opinions on "things to put in, take out" and intended to "act on that input."
Commissioners then took turns reading from a charter presentation script prepared by Jim Schwaninger, chair of the charter commission's public relations committee.
The presentation summarized the charter's 13 articles which were described as a blend of what has worked for the city so far with what commissioners hope to be improvements to city government in Sikeston.
If the charter is voted in by a simple majority in the coming April election, the council will be expanded to seven members in 2003, according to Sharp, and will be fully operating as prescribed in the charter in 2004.
"There you have it," said Sharp. "Nine months of work boiled down to 18 minutes of talking."
Commissioners followed the presentation by opening to questions and comments from the public.
Bill Cook, who identified himself as a pastor, businessman, resident of Sikeston since July 1 and a former ninth-grade civics teacher, said he appreciates the labor of the commission and believed them to be "heading down the right track."
Cook asked commissioners to reconsider a strong mayor form of government and asked for clarification on term limits.
Sharp explained that under the terms of the charter a person is limited to a total of two terms in a row as a council member whether elected at large or from a ward and limited to two terms in a row as mayor.
Major Lucious, a Sikeston pastor, said if the mayor is to have no additional powers he or she should continue to be selected by fellow city council members as is presently done.
Electing a weak mayor sends a confusing message to voters who "naturally assume the mayor will run the city when that isn't true," said Lucious.
Lucious also asked if citizen participation would be allowed in the process of drawing up wards and expressed concern that someone could potentially stay on the council forever by bouncing back and forth between a seat on the council and serving as mayor.
Addressing the question of citizen participation in the designation of wards, Sharp said the council would make the final decision unless they were unable to come to an agreement in which case the courts would decide. "The council is always open to public input," he added.
Each ward would include about 4,500 people as the population stands now, according to officials.
Criteria for designating the wards which should prevent "gerrymandering" were briefly explained. Commissioner Troy Wilson said there are federal guidelines currently in place for drawing up wards, although it was noted by one member of the public that such guidelines have been circumvented for congressional districts.
Commissioner Shad Old said the commission needs to research the possibility for citizen participation in deciding ward boundaries.
Addressing the other concern voiced by Lucious, Old said allowing someone to alternate between a council seat and the mayor position would allow a person who was "extremely valuable to the city" to continue their service if they were popular enough to win the required elections.
Lucious said in his opinion, term limits should be eliminated completely if the loophole to allow one person to stay on the council by alternating from mayor to council member is left in.
During a discussion of filling vacancies on the council, Commissioner Phil Boyer said the charter needs to be clearer in instructing that a council member who moves from a ward while serving as that ward's representative must vacate the seat.
It was also noted by a citizen that the charter apparently makes no mention of what happens if a seat has no candidates running for it.
Addressing the question of "voter apathy," Sharp said a booklet on the charter would be mailed to every Sikeston resident before the April election.
Boyer said he didn't recall the commission voting on that matter, although he thought they were going to mail out a copy of the "Charter at a Glance" brochure.
Wilson said Sikeston citizens need to know the city government is "seeking involvement, allowing input" and that issues must be well-known or a low turnout at the polls is to be expected.
As discussion returned once again to the mayor, Sharp said although most former Sikeston mayors said a three-year term is too long, the state average is a term of 3.3 years.
Jeffrey Sutton, commissioner, said a citizen-elected mayor would be directly accountable and responsible to the voters. He said the "get along" ideal may not be as essential to the council as many seem to believe it to be. "Sometimes conflict is not such a bad thing."
Sharp said even a weak mayor has a leadership role and that it could be better for Sikeston to have candidates running on a platform instead of just on their general merits.
Steve Forbis asked if there was a consensus among the former mayors gathered at the last charter commission meeting.
Steve Sikes, vice chairman, answered that as a weak mayor is highly ceremonial position that can be "a pain to do," the former mayors said they prefer having the mayor selected by the council.
Wilson said he believed mayors owe their allegiance to the group that selects them. A show of hands indicated most of the citizens in the room - 67 percent, according to Wilson - preferred the mayor to be elected at large.
Jessie Redd Sr. said right now half the people in Sikeston don't know who the mayor is, "but everybody knows who they voted for."
Larry Tetley, commissioner, said he believed Sikeston has long operated with "good ol' boy syndrome," and that "if we are going to grow, we've got to change."
With the time allotted for the meeting used up during discussion, Sharp said commissioners would decide on a date for a 7 p.m. public input meeting in January.