Want to change government? Join Hamilton’s Charter commission

City leaders are seeking between nine and 15 residents to perform a mission that will determine the way Hamilton operates for years to come.

It’s a once-every-five-years opportunity to explore the intricacies of the laws that dictate how Hamilton city government functions, for people who don’t mind a little bit of homework. The citizens will be tasked with exploring possible improvements to the Hamilton City Charter, which took effect Jan. 1, 1928, and acts as essentially the city’s constitution.

The charter, which now is 34 pages long, created a Council/City Manager form of government in response to calls for rooting corruption out of City Hall and making Hamilton government more efficient. In 1925, 56 percent of voters decided to create a charter, and elected 15 representatives to write the document.

During the decades before that vote, Hamilton regularly had financial problems. And with Prohibition-era crimes increasing during the 1920s, there were rumors some city officeholders “were influenced by payoffs and favors from bootleggers, rum runners, gamblers and others circumventing the law,” the late Hamilton historian Jim Blount wrote in 2000.

Histories have reported other vices, including gambling and prostitution, had plagued the city even before prohibition began.

The Great Flood of March 1913 that swamped the city, destroying bridges and thousands of houses, and leaving several hundred dead or missing — plus more than 10,000 homeless — also had played a factor. Hamilton residents were so disappointed by the city’s flood response that eight months after it, they swept the Socialist Party into 10 of the city’s 16 elected positions, including the mayor and five council members.

With the Progressive Era seeking political reforms from the 1890s into the 1920s and popularity of the city-manager form of government growing across the country, voters were choosing non-partisan elections, city managers and civil service commissions in efforts to eliminate political patronage. Dayton had been the first large U.S. city to adopt the city manager format, with council members elected citywide and without party affiliations on the ballots.

The Women’s City Club and local labor unions led the push for the charter, Blount reported, and the document has been amended a few dozen times since by votes of Hamilton citizens.

Under the Charter, “On or before Feb. 28, 2005, and every five years thereafter, the Council shall appoint by written motion a Charter Review Commission” of 9-15 voters “to review the city’s Charter and make recommendations, if any, for revisions” to it.

“They will sit down, they’re going to going through the charter,” said City Clerk Nick Garuckas. “City staff may go to Charter Review with suggestions, comments, complaints about things they would possibly like to see changed. Charter Review can also make up their own recommendations.”

Interested voters who live in the city can apply at the site or can contact Garuckas at 513-785-7182, or nick.garuckas@hamilton-oh.gov.

Members of the review panel have the mission of proposing charter amendments to the city council so they can appear on the November ballot. The Charter Review Commission doesn’t have to suggest changes that are proposed by city staff, and council members themselves “may accept or reject the recommendations” of the commission. In periods between commissions created in years ending with 0s and 5s, council members also can appoint Special Charter Review Commissions with 5-9 members to consider “specific matters.”

Charter Review members “really review, do some homework on the charter, come back and have these discussions about what they all thought about particular sections, and what is working for the city, what they think is better to the residents,” Garuskas said.

“Whatever passes city council will be forwarded on to the November, 2020, election for a vote by the electors by the citizens,” he said.

City Manager Joshua Smith, who took office in September 2010, said he did not believe he had forwarded anything to the charter review commission in 2015. Other officials did not offer suggestions they might offer, although Garuckas noted, as some council members had in 2017, that some attention might be given to areas of civil service, such as how people can be hired, fired and promoted.

Voters approved a non-controversial charter amendment in November of 2018 by nearly 62 percent that cleaned up confusing language on nominating-petition forms for the city’s mayor and council candidates, and make them consistent with those used by other candidates across the county.

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