Council weighs term limits

PARKERSBURG – As Bob Newell approaches the halfway point of his third – and under the city charter, final – four years as mayor, some members of City Council want to ask voters whether the term limits on the office should stay in place.

Meanwhile, council members who oppose the move plan to put forward the question of whether their terms should be limited as well.

Councilwoman Sharon Lynch said Friday that she and fellow council members Kim Coram, Jim Reed and Nancy Wilcox are sponsoring legislation to put an issue on the November general election ballot to amend the city charter to remove the prohibition against the city’s chief executive serving more than three consecutive terms.

“Parkersburg is in a position now where we’re growing, and it’s the first time in a long time we’ve been in this position where we stand to grow by leaps and bounds,” Lynch said. “I think the people have the right to say, do they want to change (leadership) right in the middle of this?”

Lynch said she’s been asked by constituents who might run for mayor in 2016 and whether Newell could run again. Many, she said, did not realize there were term limits for the mayor.

In fact, Newell is the first mayor since the charter was enacted in 1969 to be elected to a third consecutive term.

It was residents’ inquiries that formed the genesis of this proposal, Lynch said. The mayor did not propose it, she said.

Newell on Friday said he doesn’t know if he would run for a fourth term even if the option was available. He supports allowing people to vote on the change, but said he doesn’t want his candidacy to be the deciding factor.

“I wouldn’t want people for or against it based on the person that’s in office right now,” he said.

Newell said he’s proposed considering other charter revisions in the past but never sought to remove term limits on his office.

Councilman John Kelly said Newell isn’t the reason he opposes removing term limits.

“I believe term limits are important,” he said. “I don’t believe in any instance the City of Parkersburg should have someone who is able to be mayor for life.”

Kelly said he was asked to be a sponsor of the legislation. Instead, he, Councilman Roger Brown and Councilman J.R. Carpenter are sponsoring a different item – to put the idea of term limits for council before voters.

“Let’s talk about term limits for everybody,” Kelly said.

Lynch said that’s fine with her.

“I think that people have the right to decide,” she said. “I don’t have any problem with that.”

Brown said he favors term limits for all elected offices; however, he won’t vote to put the council term limits on the ballot if the mayoral one is voted down.

“Because there’s no sense voting for it,” he said. “No one’s complained one way or the other.”

Kelly served three terms on council previously and sat out several years before being elected again in 2012.

“When you’re there and while you’re doing the job, you think you’re doing everything right,” he said. “Once you leave office, you have a chance to reflect. … If you really were as good as you thought you were, then you can sit a term out and run again.”

Carpenter said term limits keep fresh ideas coming into government and prevent one person from getting burnt out on the job.

“I think the mayor’s done a very good job to date, but I think that job could overwhelm anybody over time,” he said.

Coram said her support isn’t about allowing Newell specifically to have a fourth term.

“It has nothing to do with the person; it has everything to do with the position and what our community’s going through,” she said, pointing to economic growth like the potential multibillion-dollar petrochemical complex centered around an ethane cracker plant.

Coram said that if people want a new mayor in the midst of that and other developments, they should vote for someone new, not be forced to choose another candidate because the law won’t allow the incumbent to run.

She also noted council won’t make the decision to remove term limits.

“A vote against this is a vote not to let the citizens decide,” Coram said.

Carpenter agreed the citizens should decide and said they did in 1969 when the current charter was ratified.

“I have yet to hear a positive response to remove (term limits),” he said. “If there was a push to have term limits removed, I’m sure we would have heard about it by now.”

Kelly questioned the timing of the effort.

The ballot issue or issues would have to be submitted to the Wood County Clerk’s office by Aug. 26 to make the Nov. 4 ballot. That’s the date on which council’s second regular meeting of the month would normally fall, but council this week voted to move that meeting to Aug. 19 at the same time they moved the Aug. 12 meeting up a week to avoid a conflict with a West Virginia Municipal League event.

“Why at this time?” Kelly said. “Why did they wait until the last minute to bring this up? Why hasn’t there been a discussion about this?”

Lynch said the second meeting was moved to allow the mayoral term-limit issue a chance to get on the ballot. As for the timing of the topic, she said that’s a result of when constituents brought it up to her.

Kelly was the sole council member voting against an amendment to change the second meeting date, but he joined the unanimous vote approving the new dates.

Council President John Rockhold declined to discuss his thoughts on mayoral term limits, except to say that, “I’m going to vote to do what’s best for the city.”

He did encourage residents to come to both council meetings – slated for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday Aug. 5 and 19 in council chambers at the Municipal Building- to express their opinions on the issue.