SALISBURY — The Salisbury City Council put the final nail in a petition started by one of its own members Monday to have a controversial charter change placed on next year’s ballot.
“This was a missed opportunity for the council majority to hear from citizens,” said Mayor James Ireton. “The resolution was non-binding, so council would have done no harm being respectful to our citizens.”
Earlier this fall, Councilwoman Laura Mitchell took issue with what she felt was a rushed and unjustified move by the council majority to change the city charter, placing control of the city attorney under purview of the council, instead of the mayor, as was tradition. Mitchell began a petition drive with the end goal of putting the charter amendment up for public vote. She needed to collect 2,539 signatures, or 20 percent of the registered voters in Salisbury, but fell short by about 200 signatures.
Still, Mitchell argued that the approximately 2,300 she did collect should be a clear sign that the public was not happy with the way things were handled.
“I think that the numbers speak very loudly to me,” said Mitchell. “Do you care or not?”
The majority of the council, however, didn’t view the number of signatures as such a clear indicator of public outrage.
“This number keeps getting bigger as I hear about it,” said Councilman Tim Spies.
Spies noted that he viewed the petition as only “a bunch of names on paper” in its current form, and reminded the rest of the council that, because the minimum number of signatures were not collected, none of them had to go through the verification process.
“I expect that if they were validated the number might be smaller,” he said.
Mitchell felt otherwise, and expressed confidence that the signatures she collected would still represent a large portion of the population if they were verified.
Councilwoman Shanie Shields said she only personally encountered one resident during the process who did not want to put a name on the petition.
“I think it would be a slap in the face if we did not put this on the referendum,” she said.
Shields noted that, unlike Mitchell’s original intention, which demanded a “binding” vote by residents, now only a “non-binding” vote was being suggested.
“If it’s non-binding, what are we afraid of?” she asked.
“This is not about being afraid,” responded Councilwoman Deborah Campbell.
According to Campbell, the heart of the matter was that Mitchell’s petition failed and anymore wrangling over the issue was just holding things up.
“There were not enough signatures to garner the required 20 percent … 20 percent is the rule,” she said. “20 percent wasn’t reached.”
Campbell added that the same rules apply to everyone and called putting the issue on the ballot even after the defeat of the petition “unprecedented.” She also labeled the controversy Mitchell was raising “a political hot-potato” and claimed that it was responsible for a “media circus.”
Undeterred, Mitchell cited the fact that there was no rule against putting a non-binding referendum on the ballot no matter how the petition faired. City Attorney Paul Wilbur confirmed the claim, as long as the referendum was “purely for guidance to the council.”
The rest of the council remained unbent, however. Council President Terry Cohen questioned the goals of the petition and stressed that the council followed state law when passing the charter amendment, despite Mitchell’s claim that the process was rushed.
“The letter of the law was followed in passing this,” said Mitchell.
But she asserted that the “spirit of the law” had been circumvented. On that point, Mitchell and Cohen remained divided.
With the vote Monday, there is now no longer any doubt that the amendment will carry through. Wilbur briefed the council on what the changes would mean and noted that there wouldn’t be a dramatic shift other than the fact that he now served at the pleasure of the council instead of the mayor.
“As far as meetings [with the city attorney] go, they can meet the mayor, any department people have direct access and the city council has direct access,” he said. “If the city is served with lawsuits, the mayor and council will be informed of those lawsuits.”
For routine matters, Wilbur said that things will remain business as usual. Only in unusual scenarios will the charter change become relevant. He gave an example of a complaint being lodged against the city evolving into an actual lawsuit. In that situation, Wilbur explained that both the mayor and council would be informed. According to Cohen, the system is an improvement from the past and will help the city avoid any “11th hour” mix-ups.
“It’s healthier for all concerned if the council is aware of these things,” she said.
Campbell agreed, saying, “We have learned some painful lessons in the past, the city has. … Everybody sees this as an opportunity to improve communications.”