CAPE GIRARDEAU - Nearly 10 years ago, city residents, feeling disenfranchised and looking to be empowered, decided they wanted the city council members to be elected from wards instead of at large.
"The idea was that we'd have better representation," recalled Al Spradling III, Cape Girardeau's mayor.
In 1994, those residents got their wish and Cape Girardeau was split into six wards with one councilman representing each ward.
How the ward system has worked out since then is of particular interest to residents in nearby Sikeston who are considering the very same change, among others, with the adoption or rejection of the proposed Sikeston Charter.
Cape Girardeau ended up implementing several of the same changes being proposed in the Sikeston Charter, but did so in steps over the years rather than all at once.
Cape Girardeau adopted its Charter in 1981 without any major changes to its council other than changing the mayor from being an internally-selected position to being elected at large along with the six at-large council seats.
Term limits were approved by voters and added in 1996.
If Sikeston voters approve the proposed Charter, they will approve all three all at once: a change to wards, a mayor elected at large and term limits.
"I don't like term limits," said Spradling, clarifying an answer given recently to the Southeast Missourian newspaper regarding the "the experiment" of the ward system and term limits in Cape Girardeau. "The wards have been OK. I still don't think the enthusiasm is there."
Spradling's primary criticism of the ward system is that it failed to generate the interest and participation proponents of the ward system promised.
So far, no council seats have gone vacant but there have been several unopposed races and overall fewer candidates are running for council positions than before implementing wards, according to Spradling. "Sometimes it gets difficult getting people to run for these positions."
Another problem Spradling has seen with wards in Cape Girardeau is that many residents have remained ignorant about which ward they live in. "People are not as informed about who their city councilman is," said Spradling.
Cape Girardeau officials have tried to inform residents, Spradling said. Photographs of council members and their respective wards were broadcast on the city's public access channel and maps depicting the wards were published in local newspapers and even sent out with utility bills.
Yet, residents inevitably continue to call the wrong council member.
In one Cape Girardeau ward, a candidate was disqualified from the coming April election because he did not have the required 50 signatures from his ward. "He had people who didn't even know what ward they lived in," said Spradling. "I think these are inherent problems."
Spradling said the big "failure," however, has been in term limits. "We lose all our experience on the council," he said. "We don't have the continuity of knowledge."
Like the term limits proposed under the Sikeston Charter, Cape Girardeau officials can go from a council seat to the mayor position or vice versa, but can not serve in either capacity for more than two terms in a row without interruption.
Having served on the council six years and as mayor for eight years, Spradling said he enjoys public service and would, if not prevented by term limits, consider staying on awhile longer.
He has no desire, however, to run for a council seat or gear back up to run for mayor again after sitting out a term. "After 14 years on the council it's time for someone else," Spradling said.
Although it has been a topic of much debate among Sikeston Charter commissioners, Spradling said electing a "weak mayor" at large has worked out well for Cape Girardeau.
"I think a mayor at large is important," said Spradling. "I think it's been beneficial for the city of Cape. That's generated more interest in elections than anything else."
Spradling said he was in no way put off by the additional ceremonial responsibilities of being a mayor - such as appearing at hundreds of ribbon cutting ceremonies over the last eight years. "I enjoy meeting people, I enjoy representing our city," Spradling said.
Overall, Spradling believes Sikeston to be on the right track. "I think the Charter is an excellent direction to go, frankly," said Spradling, citing "the autonomy for future growth and development as a city."
Spradling said since becoming a Charter city, Cape Girardeau has accomplished many things such as joint ventures with the university that "maybe we could not have done as a third-class city. I think Sikeston will benefit from that."