At a recent workshop, Milford City Council discussed starting the process to update the city charter. According to City Solicitor David Rutt, the process takes some time and would likely not be completed until 2025.
“I don’t think that we’re going to do that, but Mr. Rutt, please let us know before we get run down the road somewhere,” Councilman Jason James said. “There may be things in there that are still relevant to how we conduct the city overall, but are there things that are in conflict with itself and other parts of the charter? There’s one charter that says one thing, but another says another thing because there are things in there that the council persons think the charter means this, but it really means something else. It needs clarity. I don’t know the answer to these things, but this is an open floor and there may be things that from the City Manager or the City Clerk’s position, may have recommendations to say this has been there but it really needs to be cleaned up because it really doesn’t make any sense.”
Councilman Todd Culotta questioned why the copy of the charter did not have edited text like in the past and Councilman James explained that there had been no changes at the present time. This meeting was simply to bring up areas where council felt the charter should be updated, changed or clarified. City Clerk Terri Hudson pointed out that the last time the city changed its charter, the process took two years. Since it was not long ago, she felt the changes would be relatively minor and only places that were glaringly incorrect.
“We spent a lot of time on the way it works now so we don’t have a registration process for voters within Milford. If you’re a registered voter in the state of Delaware, or you live in Milford you can vote in our election now,” Councilman Culotta said. “But there’s some language in there it still reads as though you have to be registered within the city.”
Hudson explained that the language related to voter registration was left very generic when it was written. The language Councilman Culotta referred to in the charter simply stated that to vote in a city election, a resident had to be registered with the state 30 days prior to an election.
“And to just pick up on some comments that Terri made, we heard the amount of time it takes to make these things process through,” Councilman James said. “So, anything that is suggested tonight is not necessarily something that would take place next week or six months, one year. So, when I think about things of this nature, I think about things what is best for the city, not what’s best for a particular council person or particular office, what’s best for the city. That’s my perspective.”
Councilman James continued that he did have one charter change in mind.
“When I think about proposed charter changes, I do have one in mind that it may not be something that council has an appetite for, it may be so, but I did some research, and I could be off but most of the towns or cities in Delaware that are over 12,000 people and the number may be lower but more than more than 9,001, mostly northern towns, none of them have two year terms. They’re three or four,” Councilman James said. “And the mayor’s term does not always coincide with the council person’s term. In some cases, it does. In some cases, it doesn’t. The council may have three or four while the mayor may have two or less, I mean less than three or two. And my thinking is well why would they do that? As you grow, the number of legislative things that you will address with a growing town or town a certain population can become more and more numerous and more and more impactful. So just think about it. And always assume that the council persons will go unchallenged and be in their seats for consecutive term. As more people come along, they’re probably will be more challenges in those races and the person has a two year term.”
Councilman James felt that when someone is sworn in the first time, a two-year term can limit what they accomplish as the newly elected official spends the first year learning processes, the city code and other matters necessary to effectively manage the city. Although most council seats are held more than one term, with a two-year limit, it is possible someone could be voted out of the seat the second year. He also felt that staggering the mayor’s term might make more sense as well.
“I’ve had people complain over the years council people, about the fact that the mayor’s term always begins and ends with the same council and that has been a problem in the past,” City Clerk Terri Hudson said. “So too, there should be a staggered term that would allow that term to end. And I had it figured out at one time. I can’t remember if it was three years or not. That would give council members the opportunity to run for mayor without impacting their own term.”
Mayor Archie Campbell recalled that when he first became mayor, moving from a council seat, he felt council seats should be three years, but recalled the request was voted down.
“I think two years is a little too short. Because by the time, like Mr. James said, about the time you get acclimated to what’s going on, you’re out,” Mayor Campbell said. “So certain communities still are looking at three years. And correct me if I’m wrong, Terri, but if we make this kind of change that we have to go to the legislature.”
Solicitor Rutt stated that after all the charter changes are made at council level, a bill must be introduced in the General Assembly, starting with the House. It is then referred to a committee who holds hearings that require the city manager and city solicitor to attend. The last time the bill was presented, it was sponsored by Representative Harvey Kenton. It then goes to the Senate and to the Governor for signature.
“A lot of towns and municipalities are structured differently. In that you have one of the largest councils in the state with eight people on it which is a lot. Many just have one person from a district or an area and then they will elect the mayor from that group, or they don’t have a separate mayoral race. Millsboro is like that,” Solicitor Rutt said. “Yeah, a lot of towns are Georgetown is, Millsboro is I know, Lewes and we do have separate Mayor in Bridgeville that elects from the town council, they will elect the mayor, and it can stagger so that in one year, for example, Mr. James, you would be mayor in the next year, even Mrs. Wilson. They have an organizational meeting where they can do that. It’s kind of messy. But it does happen. So, there are numerous variations that you could have on that. But, again, they have two, three year terms, four year terms. There’s no more than four, nobody has five year term.”
Councilman Mike Boyle asked how long it would take to get the charter change through the legislature. Hudson explained the last time they went article by article, meeting once each month for several months before submitting it to the legislature. A charter amendment committee was formed to review the entire document, according to Solicitor Rutt. Councilman Boyle asked if a charter amendment would be easier and Solicitor Rutt stated it would, but it still had the same process to go through.
“I’d like to chime in on something Councilman James said. I would be in favor of a longer term or three years. You know, right now we’re doing two years and people just don’t come out to the election,” Councilman Boyle said. “Last time a council member ran for office, out of a potential of 1,600 voters under 19 showed up so I mean, if it was less frequent, there might be a more of an interest as an election comes up, that the citizens might get a little more involved and be a little more interested in the process.”
Councilman Culotta agreed with Councilman Boyle, but felt the term served was not the problem.
“I mean, I agree with that. But I also think it’s easy to sit on this side of the fence and say, oh, yeah, we need longer term. I like the fact that the two year term keeps us honest, keeps us fresh, and allows people to be active in a more it’s because we’re staggered. It’s very easy to understand. And then, the mayor’s alternative every other year. I give them their terms can be a little bit longer. That would be fair. But to say that people don’t come out and vote. That’s up to the voter,” Councilman Culotta said. “Whether it’s three years, four years or two years, if we’re doing the job that the voters have asked us to do, and they don’t see the need to come out because it seems to me even like public comment here on a topic. If most people agree with it, you don’t get a lot of attendance. When it is controversial, that’s when you get attendance. People have a problem with a council member or the mayor or multiple members, they will come out and participate in the election.”
Councilman Boyle felt that having an election every year led people to ignore them after a while, that there just seemed to be some apathy.
“I’ll be honest, two year term is very short. It goes by very fast. And I mean, we start working on the budget, we’ve finally finished the budget. And then it’s like, bam, it’s election time. It is going quick and, and everything for that first or second year, has already almost been decided,” Councilman Andy Fulton said. “So, your actual voice of the people is not really heard until your second term. Because the other things have already been decided. It’s already gone through a process. And it’s already been said, “we’re going to do this, you can bring up discussion points and you can talk about points, but you can’t effect the points in most circumstances.” That’s assuming you can modify or change.”
Councilman Culotta pointed out that was only true if there was a change every two years and that in his six years on council, he had only seen one incumbent challenged the entire time and that was for Councilman Boyle’s seat. Councilman Fulton reminded him that when Councilman Brian Baer was elected, that was a hotly contested seat because he was running for his own seat at the time, although Councilman Fulton was running for an open seat. Councilman Culotta stated that even in Congress, this topic is debated.
“For just one second, but Councilman Culotta to your point, and I really emphasize that, it doesn’t affect us. If we’re only voting for us, right. We’re doing these things, shame on us, right. From my opinion, shame on us, right. We should be looking out and saying, this legislative process, there’s legislative soup, who should be stirring the pot for how long? What’s the best recipe for the citizens of Milford,” Councilman James said. “And so that’s what we’re discussing. Like I say, it’s not from my perspective, and I know it’s hard for people to get out of their own thoughts, it’s like my seat, my seat Well, it’s the citizens seat that they’re allowing you to temporarily occupy it. How long should a seat be occupied that best benefits their desires and their in their wishes?”
Councilman Culotta felt the answer was not changing the term limits but more choices and more regularity.
“I just would like to chime in here. A little bit in in terms of continuity of operations. You have the possibility of a complete 100% turnover in council in two years. There may be one item that draws people out to make that happen. And we have seen that happen in communities within Sussex County. We’ve just recently seen it,” Whitfield said. “These items come up and everyone gets excited for a short period of time and then it dies off. It’s much easier to weather that over a three year or four year term than it is over a two year term because it’s still fresh. Again, that might be what people want or what you want. I’m just saying for continuity in office operations, it’s much nicer to have a consistency on council. I mean, look what this group has been able to do over the last five years. And I think it really has to do with having that stability and confidence in one another, hearing each other out. But it could have easily went the other way.”
Councilman James agreed that there was significant apathy when it came to running for city council and voting in members of council.
“I do like Councilman Culotta’s point that people have not come out but that is not new, it is all history. There was one time when we only had 5,600 people in the city of Milford as far as residents. Now, I saw that, and I know as of September, there were 14,000 in the City of Milford and there’s still developments that have not got anywhere near to getting up to speed with starting to put roofs up,” Councilman James said. “So, it’s going to change. Our population is going to be a lot more different. So, we have to think could there be more activity because people are coming from different states and different towns where they were active, and you could find a lot more activity than then you find now what people desire and to participate in the legislative process. Just because people didn’t challenge anyone before doesn’t mean everyone can’t be challenged.”
Councilman Culotta liked Whitfield’s comment on continuity, but if the citizens felt strongly about a subject, the current term limits allowed them to make a change within two years.
“Believe it or not most people think the council has a three year term. They don’t know the two year term. Because if I talk about one of the councilmen is up for reelection, I hear “he just got voted in last year.” So, they’re confused how long it is,” Mayor Archie Campbell said. “And I tell them no, it’s only two years. And the question comes to me is why it is only two years, by the time the person learns what’s going on, he can be off the job. I think the lack of participation, I’ve also found out there were quite a few people jumping on Mr. James’s story here. We have people from different states who were really active in their communities. And that’s now going to change because people become more and more active when they come here.
Mayor Campbell reminded council that we now had residents from Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey who may have been active in their own legislature and could bring some expertise to the Milford’s council.
“So, they’re really participating in the election issue. I look at it as I think three years is probably reasonable. I noticed that the larger communities in the state of Delaware, most of the council people are elected,” Mayor Campbell said. “Dover has a really strange process, like the man goes out, canvassing the whole city. And it’s not they just the ward. They do the whole city. If you go up to Newark, that’s totally different. Everybody, the larger I should say larger communities. It’s an election. issue. So, I think if we look at the population growth in Milford, I think the charter should be changed to three years.”
Councilwoman Nirmala Samaroo, the newest member of council, agreed that two years was not enough time to gain an understanding of the legislative process.
“I just want to chime in on mayor and vice mayor, since I am newly elected and on my second term as a newly elected official, I wanted to speak on that comment. I think the three years is great because, as they mentioned the first year trying to get everything in place and just brand new it takes time and even speaking with the residents,” Councilwoman Samaroo said. “If you’re working on something to get done with them, they’re saying, well, we’re going to work together and get it done. But hopefully before my term ends next year, I will be able to accomplish that. So, I do agree on this topic. That three years will be best for newly elected official.”
Councilman James suggested the appointment of a committee to begin reviewing the charter. Mayor Campbell asked if the committee should also include citizens to which Solicitor Rutt stated it was a council committee only. Solicitor Rutt also stated it would be almost impossible to have the charter changed in 2024 as the legislators adjourned on June 30.
“First you have to have your meeting to have it on the agenda. Then you would have to have the committee appointed. The committee would be looking at different sections of it, and then trying to formulate what charter changes in the language and you’re talking about changing the election cycle,” Solicitor Rutt said. “But are there other changes? If you really want to bore into this and see if there are other items that want that you want to change? Instead of doing this now and then cut you having to go through the whole process again the next legislative cycle, you just won’t make it I mean, you’re looking at to two months to do all of that before he goes to the General Assembly.”
Councilman Marabello felt that if the committee could meet soon and the changes were relatively minor, it would be possible to have them completed by the end of June, but Solicitor Rutt felt there was no need to rush. He suggested that the matter be placed on a agenda so a committee could be appointed in order to begin the process.
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