More powerful mayor on the ballot

DANVILLE — Most people in the Boyle County seat would agree that running a city with a $28 million budget and 135 employees is a full-time job. But whose job? The city manager's or the mayor's?

That's the question to be decided Nov. 4, when Danville votes on whether to change its form of government.

For nearly 40 years, the day-to-day administration of the city has been in the hands of a city manager who answers to a board of commissioners — whose members include the mayor. But proponents of change say the city of 16,000 needs to change its form of government so that the mayor is the "go-to person" who sets direction and executes policy.

Steven Becker, a Danville caterer who was among those who petitioned to get the issue on the ballot, said, "It's hard to know who is in charge" under the current city manager form of government.

Over the past year, three of the four city commissioners have had a series of disputes with Mayor Hugh Coomer that resulted in an ethics investigation and hearing into his actions. The ethics board dismissed seven counts but determined that Coomer went beyond his legal authority on three others.

Against this backdrop, Becker said, it's hard to know who leads the city.

"People want to know 'Who is the person in charge?'" Becker said. "That doesn't mean the city manager can't be that person, but I think those who have the title of mayor are looked upon as the person being in charge. There is so much confusion and discord on the commission, and there is frustration."

But Clarence Wyatt, a Centre College history professor, said discord can happen in any form of government, and he contends that there is no need to change.

While acknowledging that "representative government is messy sometimes," Wyatt said the city manager-commission form of government allows elected officials to concentrate on broader policy issues, and leaves the day-to-day administration to a professional manager.

"What concerns, what ills are there that can only be addressed only by the proposed change of government?" Wyatt asked during a September public forum on the issue. "Concerns may exist, but I think we have the opportunity to address them in ways short of changing the current form of government."

Under the city manager plan of government, all legislative and executive authority is vested in and exercised by the board of commissioners. A city manager, a trained professional, is the chief administrative officer who prepares the budget, supervises all city departments, and is responsible for the day-to-day operations of city government.

The city manager answers to the commissioners, not the mayor, said J.D. Chaney, director of governmental affairs for the Kentucky League of Cities.

The mayor in the city manager-commission form of government is a member of the legislative body, has a vote and is able to introduce ordinances.

On the other hand, under a mayor-city council form of government, all executive authority is vested in and exercised by the mayor. Departments report to the mayor as he or she deems desirable. The mayor also has veto power.

Under the mayor-city council form of government, the mayor is not considered a member of the council and cannot introduce legislation without finding a person on the council to introduce it. The mayor also does not vote unless there is a tie.

But the mayor can make and execute contracts, as long as they are according to a budget approved by the council, said Andrew Hartley, staff attorney for the Kentucky Department for Local Government.

Referendums to change a city's form government are rare in Kentucky.

Russell Springs, a city of about 3,000 in south-central Kentucky, voted to switch from a commission to a mayor-council form of government in 2007. (Their commission form of government was not the city manager plan of government that Danville has.) The six council members will be elected Nov. 4, said Russell Springs Mayor Hollis DeHart.

In 1991, Grayson, a town then of 3,200 residents in Carter County, voted to scrap its city commission in exchange for a city council. The town at that time was too poor to hire a city manager, and residents were dissatisfied that the commission had become mired in disputes among its members.

Danville once had a mayor-city council form of government, but in 1966, residents voted to change to a city manager plan of government. It went into effect in 1970.

Then, in 1991, Danville voters were asked to change back to a mayor-council form of government. That was defeated 2,472 to 538.

If Danville decides to change a city council form of government, the election for the first council would not be until November 2010. The new council members would not take office until Jan. 1, 2011.

In addition, the legislative body would grow in size if voters decide to go to a council form of government. Currently, the commission has four commissioners elected to two-year terms and a mayor elected to a four-year term.

Under the council form of government, the legislative body would have six to 12 members. Before the November 2010 election, the current commission would determine how many council members would be elected.

If city voters decide to change the form of government, it would not affect Mayor Hugh Coomer's current term as mayor, which ends in 2010. Coomer, who supports the change, has said he will not seek re-election.