Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007 | Last week, we advised the city’s leaders and interested citizens to begin, in a very open and public way, the process of making major changes to the city’s charter — its constitution.

In 2010, our current experiment with the strong mayor system of government is scheduled to end. That will occur at the same time the city is required to undergo a redistricting. It will be an important time and it presents an opportunity to set up our governing structure for the next several decades.

We insisted that the city begin work on an updated charter in an open and public way with an elected commission whose membership would be open to everyone and whose work would be a deliberate exercise in public access and hearings.

So, it was disconcerting to learn over the weekend that the opposite was happening. In a potential violation of state open-meeting laws, a member of the City Council and three representatives of his colleagues huddled Saturday morning in private with one of the city’s wealthiest residents and the architects of our current deeply flawed and temporary system of government.

Though no record was kept and not even Mayor Jerry Sanders was invited to observe, they say their point in meeting was only to decide whether the group would “do something.”

The answer was yes.

Aside from the legality of the meeting, its spirit was more than troubling. Those in attendance were largely the same as the group that in 2004 used to meet on Saturdays to hurriedly craft and push through a charter amendment that eventually made the mayor the city’s chief executive. Fueled by Mayor Dick Murphy’s political worries, it was hastily drawn up in a matter of months.

The group had wrongly convinced city leaders and then the public that the need to change the system of government rapidly outweighed the need to do it correctly. That artificial timeline forced the group to compromise its vision in awkward ways with deeply flawed results.

This time around, the same group responsible for the clumsy production of the last piece of charter reform welcomed at least two of its most vocal critics from the experience three years ago to the veritable smoke-filled room. That may be a savvy political strategy, but it does nothing to change the secretive nature of its meeting.

Ironically, Mayor Sanders was not invited to participate in the meeting because Sanders is busy working behind the scenes on his own committee. Though his representatives promise it will be a public committee, he has not been open about how he plans to staff it and what few details have leaked out are equally troubling.

Finally, other wealthy individuals in town have indicated an interest in, perhaps without even the benefit of a public committee, simply drawing up their vision for the city’s future and financing a petition and election to put it into law.

These are all the stumblings of various interests trying to set the tone of the impending discussions as soon as possible. They are just one indication of how monumental these changes are.

Any and all changes to the City’s Charter will have to be approved by voters. What the public needs is a champion of its own to stand up now and present a crystal clear vision of how to move forward without the smoke-filled rooms. We have recommended that the City Council allow residents to elect a charter review commission whose recommendations would — without question — reach the ballot.

The products of any other type of committee will not have such an easy path to the ballot. The City Council will have the chance to approve — and tinker with — any proposed changes from an appointed commission. And, like in 1988 when the last committee was formed, the City Council can simply ignore its recommendations even after promising to put all of them on the ballot.

But most disturbing of all is the possibility that the two interests standing to lose or gain the most under any charter revisions — the City Council and the mayor — will quietly design and push through changes that enhance their own powers, at the expense of good governance. It is this possibility that makes last weekend’s meeting so worrisome; regardless of how they are selected, the people working to improve the city’s constitution must do so with a long-term view, not for the sake of any immediate political payoff or at the bidding of the current political establishment.

Without question, time to amend the city charter is running short. With just two scheduled election cycles left before the legally mandated reversion to the old council-manager form of government, city leaders are certainly cutting it close. That is not to say, though, that time to do charter reform the proper way has run out.

To give it time to do its work, an elected charter review commission would need to be picked in 2008. Unless a special election is called in 2009 — and reforming the city’s dysfunctional government may indeed be a good reason to call one — the commission’s recommendations would reach the ballot sometime in 2010, just months before the scheduled expiration of the current strong-mayor experiment.

The absolute deadline could prove to be exactly the right medicine, focusing the city’s minds on a cooperative dialogue. It would also discourage potential spoilers from working to defeat the reform package. Some stakeholders who may lose clout under any proposal formulated by the commission but who would still prefer it to a complete rollback to the former form of government would likely hold their tongues.

Of course, such a scenario could also cut things too close. If it failed, it would threaten the existence of a strong-mayor system that, despite its flaws, has proven to be better than the old system. A simple extension of the current system until 2012, voted on in 2008, would allow the elected commission the ability to craft a bold framework without a do-or-die deadline on strong mayor itself.

Both scenarios have their merits and drawbacks, and both deserve a robust public debate. They must be discussed and decided on soon as 2008 approaches.

Whatever path is chosen, this is not something that the mayor and City Council should work out with winks and nods. Over the next several months, we pledge to provide a forum for discussion about who should be on such a committee whether they are eventually elected or appointed to it.

But the public, under no circumstances, should tolerate allowing its elected leaders to arrange it all in private.

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