Friday, January 20, 2006

Charter review

As welcome as was the City Council's action on eminent domain, its limited scope points up something I suggested nearly a year ago. My sense was that Council would have as gladly made the eminent domain limit a charter measure, that is, one subject to approval by the voters. I have no doubt that measure would have passed overwhelmingly and become the local equivalent of constitutional law. The ordinance just approved, and surely to be affirmed on second reading, can be overturned by a simple majority vote of some future Council. A Charter measure would require another vote of the people to be changed.

On this Council's hands were tied by a frankly dog-in-the-manger gift from departed members of the previous council who put the appointed police chief item on the ballot as a purely parliamentary manuever to block any other charter items from consideration for the next two year term. I am not speaking for or against the elected/appointed chief idea, it is a perfectly valid proposition with good points on either side. The utter lack of any public campaign to promote the issue they placed on ballot as a blocking move demonstrates the real motives of those who put it there and then left it to die a predictable death.

We will soon enough be free to consider Charter changes again. I suggested that Council appoint a committee or advisory board to look into potential charter modifications and point out conflicts either with existing city ordinance or state statute that might need to be addressed. Jim Turner's latest post revisited an obvious weak point; namely that our civil service infrastructure is, in technical terms, a mell of a hess. If we are to have a reasoned revisiting of our method of selecting a chief, we need to work out the kinks in civil service law.

Eminent domain is an item I hope will become a charter measure as soon as legally possible. Doing the homework on the details of that issue while we have the luxury of not being under an election date gun strikes me as an effort worth making.

Aside from charter proposals, I would suggest the scope of this board extend to reviewing existing ordinances for internal inconsistencies. As successive Councils approve new law, they do not necessarily stop to check for conflicts with sometimes old and forgotten actions of Councils long gone. As a minor example, in the course of convincing Council to amend animal control law to let a friend keep his pet pot-bellied pig, I tripped over one section that absolutely forbade the keeping of primates other than those in temporary shows or fair venues, while another section set out the conditions required for keeping monkeys as pets. The two sections were likely passed years apart by Councils which had forgotten the earlier, contradictory ordinance.

The problem is hardly unique to San Angelo. Newspapers everywhere delight in running stories from time to time detailing silly sounding laws, usually things that have come about by oversight. I recall when I lived in Raleigh NC, one such discovered it was still a misdemeanor violation to bathe more than once a week. That unenforced bit of nonsense had been passed as an emergency drought limit on water use in 1888, but someone forgot to limit it, and technically it was still law in 1982.

Rick Smith of the Standard-Times put in a humorous article pointing out some of the sillier bits of San Angelo law. If he cannot be convinced to be on the advisory board, the board might at least prevail upon him to share his research notes with them. Just a thought Council, but reviewing while we have no immediate deadline pressure makes sense to me.

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