Council to consider changes to town charter

FRONT ROYAL – Residents could benefit from changes and updates to the local charter, says the town’s attorney.

The Town Council resumes its discussion today on the charter and possible changes to its language. Any amendments to the charter would have to be approved by the Virginia General Assembly. An effort in 2013 by the council to change various sections of the charter failed in the legislature.

The charter still contains some language that runs afoul of the Virginia state code, Town Attorney Doug Napier said Friday. For instance, the charter includes a definition of the town’s corporate limits. State law makes it illegal for a charter to contain such information. In addition, Napier pointed out that the town’s boundaries have changed drastically through annexation since that information was put in the charter. Napier has recommended that the town seek to remove this language.

“A charter is really a town’s constitution, just like the Constitution of the United States, and so what a charter is intended to be is a general set of laws that a town is supposed to follow,” Napier said. “So laws which are intended to be more impermanent in nature shouldn’t be in its charter. A charter is a fundamental set of laws.”

Napier has stated that he worries the General Assembly might abolish the existing statute that allows the town to charge a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT fees, to utility users outside the corporate limits. The General Assembly enacted legislation in the late 1990s to allow the town to equalize rates between users in and outside Front Royal.

“But the General Assembly could very easily remove that special legislation,” Napier said. “However, if it was put in the charter, the General Assembly couldn’t do that and that would be of enormous financial interest to the town citizens. That would hit them right in the pocket book.”

Napier has suggested that the charter include language stating that when the town furnishes utilities to users located outside Front Royal, the town may collect compensation and service fees as contracted. It would be more difficult for the General Assembly to take away the town’s power to collect these PILOT fees if the charter includes the enabling language, Napier said.

Another proposed change would affect local elections by scheduling them in November of the even-numbered years and make the contests bi-partisan. The council moved the elections from May to November by way of an ordinance after state legislators failed to do as members asked in 2013. However, unless legislators include this change in the town’s charter, elections could revert to May. The council also tried to include in the charter language making local elections bipartisan. Historically, town elections have been bipartisan. Such a designation allows federal employees who live in town to run for local offices.

Napier also has suggested that the town bring the process for filling vacancies on the council in line with the state code. The charter doesn’t state when the council must fill vacancies.

The charter also should allow the town to keep meeting minutes in an electronic format in lieu of, or in addition to hard-copy books, Napier said. The process of putting minutes in a book is time-consuming and more costly, he noted.

Napier recommends the council remove the charter section pertaining to the vacation of public rights of way given that it violates both state code and the town’s existing policy.

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