Black Mountain moves forward with town charter revisions, more changes expected

Ty Roush
Black Mountain News
The Board of Aldermen began its process of removing "archaic stuff" from the town charter during its Feb. 25 meeting.

BLACK MOUNTAIN - Revisions and a review of the town charter, which has "not been substantially updated since the 50s," continued at a Feb. 25 special call meeting.

All revisions will be presented during a public hearing in April.

Updates to the governing document include gender-neutral phrasing, the removal of duties for nonexistent positions, like town accountant, and remodeled and renumbered sections to match the articles they are placed under.

The process of revising the document is a process to simplify it, Anna Stearns said.

Stearns, Black Mountain-based attorney, previously served as chief of staff and general counsel to former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. 

"By and large, your charter should be very very simple and straightforward," Stearns said. "It's the hardest town document for the town to change, so most things you want to change as you go along should be in your ordinances."

Additional language was added to provide assistance for government officials to opt-in to state retirement plans and the provision of health care planning.

Stearns, who works alongside town attorney Ron Sneed, noted that the document is missing portions that are outlined in other North Carolina town charters. The town has no authority to call for special assessments of town projects, like the renovation of roads or sidewalks, and governing officials are not required to disclose conflicts of interest during public meetings.

Planning Board member Jesse Gardner, while not elected to the Board of Aldermen, was not required to recuse himself from voting in the Planning Board's approval for annexing a Brooks Cove Road property.

Mayor Larry Harris suggested that the board move forward with another special call meeting to layout any potential changes regarding special assessments and disclosing conflicts of interest.

Approval by state legislature would be required should aldermen move forward with an ordinance outlining guidelines for these topics.

The February special call meeting follows a Jan. 14 meeting in the discussion of town charter revisions. The meetings "were heavily fueled" by concerned residents over how the town appoints officials to vacant board seats, Harris said.

Though concerns focused on the board's appointment process, an additional process to "clean up" examples of "archaic stuff in the charter that needs to be fixed" was required, Sneed said in January.

Examples of unchanged "archaic stuff" in the charter include a requirement for newly elected board members to attend their first regularly scheduled meeting in June, prior to local elections moving from May to November, and a 7 p.m. meeting time for the board, which is now 6 p.m.

Sneed said he and town manager Josh Harrold had omitted large portions of the document during their personal reviews and emphasized that changes need to be made.

"We really need to update the charter," Sneed said. "Josh sent me the copy of the one that he just marked up the things he didn't want anymore, about three-fourths of your old charter, so we're ready."

Outlining guidelines for special assessments is a long-term goal, Sneed said, as the board would need to establish guidelines for the requirement of an assessment.

What's next?

The Board of Aldermen will move forward with additional changes at its regularly scheduled meeting in March for the inclusion of public comments.

A renaming of the board as "town council" is also expected, despite Harris and the charter already referring to the governing body as such. Specification and language is required in the town charter for the change and a discussion will be added to the March 8 meeting agenda.

Alderman Pam King noted that the change should fuel the removal of gender-specific titles with town officials, a process that has already moved forward with the removal of several "he's" in the charter, Stearns said.

All future changes to the charter will be considered to make the document "more practical," Harris said, while not changing how it operates.

The town also has to consider how things could be in the future, allowing for additional changes that the board cannot predict.

"I think it's probably right to keep this much shorter and more streamlined in case those things change in the future," Stearns said. "It might be another 40 years before you tackle this project again."

The appointment process

Changes approved at the Jan. 14 meeting are now outlined in Article 2, Section 4 of the charter and are available online for viewing.

The board unanimously decided that appointments made to the board more than 135 days out from the next general election will serve until the next election.

How the appointments are made, however, is still up for debate.

Alderman Doug Hay suggested an application process held two weeks out from appointee selection as a possible change, with a subcommittee comprised of board members to interview candidates.

Various scenarios were discussed, including a scenario where the board loses four members, to consider how the board could move forward. 

Stearns noted that the Charlotte City Council held a weeklong application for a vacant seat previously held by James Mitchell. Council members had expected dozens of resident applications before receiving "over 400 applicants," she said.

Applicants had to be a registered voter in Charlotte and be 21 years old while providing demographic information and knowledge that they had reviewed the city's ethics policy. 

Alderman Archie Pertiller Jr. had previously suggested that the town accept applications from candidates in the previous election. Harris agreed with both Pertiller and Hay's suggestions but noted that both could lead to a limited number of applicants.