SALISBURY — After a controversial change to the city’s charter last week, Councilwoman Laura Mitchell has taken it upon herself to open the matter up to public opinion.
Mitchell is starting a petition to referendum, which would challenge last week’s charter change.
The council majority voted 5-2 to amend the city’s charter, placing access to legal counsel directly under the council’s authority instead of the mayor’s, where it traditionally has resided. Mitchell, along with Council member Shanie Shields, voted against the alteration.
“I don’t agree that the change needed to be made,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell has been vocal about her fear that putting legal counsel directly under the control of the council instead of the mayor could represent a conflict of interest and might place the city attorney in a tight spot if they offer a legal opinion in disagreement with something the council proposes.
Brought up during a work session earlier this month, the change moved ahead to be voted on within a week, an action that Mitchell called “rushed.”
Council President Terry Cohen, who voted with the majority in favor of the change, pointed out that everything was done in due process and in accordance with state law. As for Mitchell’s accusations that the matter came out of left field and blindsided the mayor and council minority, Cohen asserted the council having direct authority over the city attorney has been “simmering” for years.
“It was time to take an action to help us do a better job,” she said.
In order to establish a referendum and place the charter change as an item for public vote on the next election ballot, Mitchell will need to collect signatures from 20 percent of Salisbury’s registered voters. With 11,552 registered as of the last election, Mitchell needs to find roughly 2,300 residents willing to push for a referendum. With only 1,099 voters, or less than 10 percent, turning out for last spring’s election, that’s no easy task. Despite the difficulty, Mitchell is confident she’ll make the mark by Nov. 19, which is the cutoff date for a referendum.
“Thus far I have not had anyone refuse to sign,” she said. “I have upwards of 20 people who have offered to go out and knock doors with me.”
Besides volunteers going door-to-door, Mitchell says she’s already secured about 10 locations around town that will keep a copy of the petition on hand for those who wish to sign.
“There’s been an overwhelming supportive reaction so far,” she said.
So far, Shields has added her name to the petition, with Mayor Jim Ireton verbally endorsing it as well.
“I support the referendum,” he said.
When asked if he thought Mitchell could realistically engage enough signatures, Ireton was not willing to count her out. However, he did argue that the 20 percent system was outdated.
“I think the numbers are antiquated … It’s always been stacked against citizens,” he said of the city’s rules.
Whether her movement passes or not, Mitchell warned the charter change could be the first of many in what she considers a power play by the council majority.
“I’m concerned this may be just an opening volley,” she said. ‘The charter is our constitution; it’s what allows us to exist … I think [this change] eliminates some checks and balances we had in place.”
While she wouldn’t disavow the possibility of additional charter changes down the road, Cohen said, “I think this kind of innuendo is not helpful to the public.”
Cohen added that “while not prohibited, it is highly unusual” for an elected official to begin a petition drive.
Mitchell encourages those interested in signing or discussing the referendum to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.