City’s charter changed over last century

The tweaking of Morgantown’s charter has been suggested in recent months. That brings to mind some major tweaking over the past century.

The last major change came in 1976 when a new charter was approved after months of consideration.That was caused by a hassle over the selection of a new mayor. At the time there were two council members for each of the seven wards.

No other action could be taken until a mayor was in place. There finally was a decision to change the rules of order so some action could be taken on important issues. It also led to the decision that a new charter be formed to prevent such delays in the future.

The mayoral vote stalemate eventually was broken when one council member changed his vote and a female mayor, Dorothy Comuntzis was elected. But the charter change remained in the forefront, and was made in 1976.

As months of discussion on the matter proceeded there were some divisions among charter committee members. But one thing that was agreed on was that state code dictated some of the charter changes.

Big among the changes was that one member in each of the seven wards be elected by a citywide popular vote. Thus, no more tie votes among council members.

Morgantown was incorporated in 1838. It obtained a charter as a borough in Virginia in 1860.

Over the next 73 years the citywide vote elected a mayor and recorder. The charter was tweaked in 1871 and was amended in 1885 to allow annexation of neighboring communities.

The charter was then changed in 1901 as the borough was made a city under state code.

The biggest change came in 1933 when a new charter allowed election of  two council members for each ward with a city manager-council form of government. That charter was in force for the next 43 years.

During that period of time council had a regular meeting each Tuesday. But there was a catch. It also met as a committee-of-the-whole following the regular session. While it couldn’t make any official decisions during the late meeting, it did make important decisions that were voted on a the next Tuesday session.

That late meeting, often called the “secret meeting,” was conducted without presence of the public, and newspaper reporters. The local afternoon paper often had a report on the committee session with information reported by a “spy” among council members.

That all ended with the new charter in 1976, when committee-of-the-whole sessions were, and still are, conducted in public view on every other Tuesday. Legal action is to be conducted in open sessions every other Tuesday.

The election of council members, one in each of the seven wards, also is citywide, with candidates obtaining signatures of registered voters in their ward to have their names on the ballot.

The mayor is chosen by councilors and conducts the meetings. The city manager acts on the desires of council.

Some of the actions of council before the current charter was enacted where quite unusual.

For instance, council once ousted the city court judge, based on reports by the local newspapers.

The instances included police arrests for speeding. The reports showed that a large number of the radar charges were dismissed by the judge, who held court in police headquarters.

The council also made some important decisions, such as funding the new South Side fire station.

Under the new charter, the Public Safety Building and parking garage, was constructed following the 1986 razing of the junior high and Central School buildings.

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