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Falls City charter debate heats up

FALLS CITY — Even before it has been placed on a ballot, Falls City’s proposed new charter is the subject of debate — starting with a member of the charter committee that led the revision process.

Falls City City Council

Falls City City Council

February 18, 2014

FALLS CITY — Even before it has been placed on a ballot, Falls City’s proposed new charter is the subject of debate — starting with a member of the charter committee that led the revision process.

Councilor and committee member Terry Ungricht submitted a letter listing his objections to the Falls City City Council and charter revision committee at Thursday’s council meeting.

Ungricht’s issue is with the provision that includes a city manager as part of the city’s governing structure. He said small cities often don’t use a “council-manager,” but a “mayor-council” form of government.

Terry Ungricht

Terry Ungricht

Under the latter, an overall administrator is not required. Elected officials or appointed committees manage city functions. The proposed charter doesn’t address qualifications or salary for a city manager, but does require the city hire one.

“I cannot in good conscience back the document we put forward to the council, which would tie the hands of future councils in having to hire a position, a city manager, that the town may not be able to afford,” he wrote in his letter.

Ungricht did not attend the committee’s final meeting, when it voted to forward the charter, the city’s official governing document, to the council to place before voters.

Falls City’s current charter was established in 1903, with only minor revisions in the years since.

Ungricht’s letter sparked a debate between councilors and other committee members at the meeting.

Mayor Amy Houghtaling, chairwoman of the committee, said members agreed to support the document, even if they didn’t agree with everything in it. She added the committee discussed at length the government form the charter should incorporate and chose what best fit how the city was running now. Houghtaling said City Administrator Amber Mathiesen conducted a survey of small towns in the state – with populations 2,500 or smaller – and found several use the council-manager form.

Amy Houghtaling

Amy Houghtaling

“I’m disappointed and frustrated with this,” she said. “Frankly, this feels like a big slap in the face.”

Councilors Lori Jean Sickles, who was also on the committee, and John Volkmann both stressed the necessity of having a manager overseeing city hall and the importance of having that enforced in the charter.

“It requires an educated professional to understand (regulations) and make sure the city is abiding by the laws of the land,” Volkmann said.

Ungricht said his decision was made after substantial research and discussions with residents who also objected to the provision. He is in favor of having a city manager, but only if the city can afford it, and said the city can continue to use its current hiring process without including the position in the city charter.

“You can do that through ordinance and a contract,” he said. “You don’t have to do that through your governing documents.”

Committee member Tony Meier stated at the meeting he was also hesitant to put the provision in the charter, fearing citizens disillusioned with past city managers wouldn’t pass it.

Dennis Sickles, who served on the committee, said the controversy may derail the committee’s work.

“In order for us to pass a new charter, the committee members needed to pull together and we haven’t pulled together,” he said. “My fear is that we may be at square one and have to start over.”

In other business, the council:

• Held its public forum to interview candidates for the vacant seat on the council. Five of the six candidates participated: Tracy Young, Dennis Sickles, Guy Mack, Tony Meier and Gerald Melin. The sixth candidate, Paul Younk, did not attend the forum. The council will select a new councilor at its March 13 meeting.