Stavney: How much does a home rule charter matter?
Perhaps the details of the charter don’t matter so very much to the general public based on engagement these past two months in Eagle. I like to think that the expertise and gravitas of Eagle’s home rule charter commission reflects a certain trust in the deliberations of the group. There has been a lot of vibrant discussion since the November election. The charter is not perfect. It is quite solid.
The Eagle commission has had over 25 hours of edits and rich discussions in honing the language of the charter. When it is referred to the voters by the Town Board, it cannot be edited again until it is adopted, and then edits will require a vote of the citizens.
Fifteen years in construction and then 20 years in public service taught me that what’s important isn’t always interesting; not to most people. It also taught me that structural details matter.
I was a framing carpenter for five glorious years before becoming a project manager whose time with custom home clients focused primarily on choosing “finishes.” In this analogy, most policy decisions that matter to citizens, such as a leash law, parking, zoning and site-specific uses are finishes. Personally, I found the structural forms defined by the concrete, steel and wood — the structure of the building — to be quite consequential and captivating.
In government, most policy works around these “immovables.” Having to go to the legislature is usually an immovable for local policy. Remodeling to add structure is usually too onerous. Yet changes can be made … at a significant process and cost.
Clients didn’t always understand that (like public policy) it was easy to change a tile package, drywall texture, move a door or change a flooring finish, until it required a change to the underlying structure. I cannot ever recall a foundation or beautifully framed rake-wall structure featured in Architectural Digest. The structural details of Eagle’s new home rule charter will likely stand for decades. I also cannot often think of when the governing structure of a public entity became the focal point of a local policy debate, until the relationship between the citizens and a board went south.
It does happen. In Colorado, there are examples of charters amended to establish new ethical standards or, for in one example, to prevent executive sessions. Imagine being in Littleton where trust broke down so severely that voters took away the council’s ability to have an executive session. They were forced to do all contracts, water rights, and highly sensitive negotiations in public.
Such charter changes are often an overreaction to an overly restrictive clause. In our drafting, we have attempted to not overwrite or be too prescriptive. We have tried to avoid such prescription while establishing clarity to the process of governance. Though I would have happily spent the time to write another 20 pages of detail into the document, I think this charter has respected and walked that line.
In the past, as a “statutory” town, the governance framework was entirely restricted by statutes adopted by the state legislature. To make a small change required a debate among a few hundred municipalities.
In my first year as town manager of Eagle in 2013, we got a bill passed by the legislature to enable modest pay raise for planning and zoning commission members — a nominal amount. After the charter is adopted, such a debate and adoption will be within the purview of the Town Council.
By adopting a charter, the intent is to make those structural decisions — should the mayor be elected by the people or appointed from among the newly elected council members — a decision closer to the people, a vote of the Town Council or the citizens of Eagle, not the state.
These past 11 weeks since the November election, I’ve been honored to serve on the charter commission with nine esteemed citizens who have a surprising amount of combined experience in governance, who respect the work. It is kind of like negotiating what a structural engineer does between an architect and a builder. For me, this has been a kind of “capstone experience” to my 20 years of education through public service, first as an Eagle Town trustee elected in 1998, then as mayor for four years (in total, a decade on the board when the town grew from a cow town to over 5,000 residents), then five years as an Eagle County Commissioner, then three as town manager.
I am honored once again in this role and in my job to continue that service by serving 27 counties and municipalities through my current role as executive director of Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.
I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly across Western Colorado with interesting staffing decisions, rogue boards and awkward charter provisions. When adopted, Eagle’s new town charter will not change human nature. It will not be perfect. It will be amended in time to reflect changing situations.
I would also like to note that we also got a hell-of-a-lot of good work done as a statutory town, but I now can see that it is time for Eagle to become the 103rd municipality in Colorado to adopt a home rule charter, and this charter will be an improved framework for governance.
Jon Stavney is the executive director of the District 12 Northwest Colorado Council of Governments who has served as the mayor and town manager of Eagle. To read Eagle’s proposed home rule charter, visit https://www.townofeagle.org/878/Charter-Commission.