Newell: Parkersburg government needs to change

PARKERSBURG – Mayor Bob Newell wants Parkersburg to consider changing its overall way of doing business.

Newell spoke Monday at the Parkersburg Rotary Club, outlining three changes to government he believes the city needs to consider.

Among those ideas was a shift from the “strong mayor” style of government to use of a city manager. Newell said such a change would require a change in the city’s charter, as now all decision-making powers rest with the mayor.

But Newell said allowing a city manager to make many of the day-to-day decisions for the city would free up the mayor for other tasks and would make the city more efficient. It also might eliminate the need for a full-time mayor.

“In some cities where there is a city manager, their mayor is part-time,” he said. “I believe having a contractual city manager can add a lot of a stability to a city.”

Newell said he believes the change would also encourage younger residents to seek the office of mayor. As a full-time position, the job now is tailored toward retired residents.

“It really excludes a lot of the people who are otherwise very qualified,” he said.

Newell said the change also may eliminate the need for term-limited turnover with city staff. Now those positions hired by the mayor, such as the city planner, attorney and finance director, expire with the mayor’s term. Newell is in his third and final four-year term as mayor.

“Three years into my last term, since I can’t be re-elected, a lot of those people will be looking into what they are going to do,” and will possibly leave city government, he said.

Another way to encourage participation in city government, Newell said, is to make city elections non-partisan.

Having to register with a party “is the other thing that keeps people out of local elections,” he said. “Municipalities are a services business. There is really no room for a Democrat, Republican or Tea Party platform.”

Newell said partisan elections also unnecessarily increase the rhetoric of city elections.

“Once you file as one or another, you automatically have the other side against you,” he said.

Newell’s third area of change is one he already has been encouraging city council to explore: Home rule.

West Virginia has a home rule pilot program that includes four cities, and legislators are considering opening the pilot program to additional cities. Newell said he would like Parkersburg to be one of those cities.

“Home rule is the ability for cities to govern themselves,” he said. “Cities are unlike any other level of government.”

Newell said cities provide resources other levels of government do not, such as water, sewer, trash, emergency services, roads, lighting, snow removal, stormwater management and quality of life services, such as parks, pools and events.

With cities dependent on state legislators for funding, municipalities often find themselves at the mercy of politicians who do not understand the needs and challenges facing residents in different areas of the state.

Newell said home rule also would allow the city to replace some of its many fees with specific taxes. For example, he said, the city could implement a 1 percent sales tax, allowing Parkersburg to reduce its B&O tax by 30 percent and eliminate its user fee and emergency services fees.