An Insider’s Guide To City Council

Jeremiah Knupp -- October 22nd, 2010

City voters head to the polls on November 2nd like employers walking into an interview with potential hires. The task is not an easy one. The people they select will be the citizen legislators who tax them, who decide what their city will become and who determine what type of environment their children will be educated in.

Hburgnews talked to former members of the Harrisonburg City Council and the Harrisonburg City School Board to get their opinions on what these governing bodies do, what they feel are the best qualifications for the job and the most pressing issues they believe will be faced in the immediate future. First we look at City Council:

What does city council do? George Pace, a council member from 2004-2008, divided council’s job into six different areas:

1. Fiscal Policy – Reviewing, revising and approving the annual budget and balancing the budget by making cuts or increasing tax revenue.

2. Zoning and Ordinances – Approving new laws, when necessary, and deciding when to modify zoning within the city or allow a property owner to have a variance.

3. Committee Responsibilities– Each council member must sit on multiple committees, such as Transportation, Parks and Recreation and the Planning Commission and serve as liaisons to entities like the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors and JMU.

4. Succession Planning – Appointing the city manager and making sure each city department has a plan of succession.

5. Strategic Planning – Council meets off-site once a year to discuss long term plans for the city. Every five years they revise the city’s Comprehensive Plan (which is up for review this year).

6. Interacting with Citizens: Members meet with the citizens of the community and bring their feedback and concerns to the council.

Dorn Peterson, who served as a council member from 2000-2004, calls City Council an “interface” between Harrisonburg citizens and their hired civil servants. As a part-time “citizen government” council members bring local residents’ concerns to public attention and then make the final decisions on issues facing the city.

What can’t council do?

“Council is responsible to adhere to state law and their ability to modify those laws is zero,” Pace noted. “More than once I’ve had to listen to someone’s complaint, and tell them ‘I understand your concern, but your best avenue is to get in touch with your [state] house or senate representative.”

According to Pace another thing some citizens don’t realize is the connection between the council and the school board.

“In a number of states the school board has budget and tax authority, but in Virginia the school board has the responsibility to develop the budget, but city council has taxing authority and serves as a check and balance for what the school district asks for,” he noted. “Council asks ‘What can the city afford and what do other departments need?’”

What makes a good council person in these former councilmen’s opinion?

“A record of success, frankly, in business,” Pace said.

He also noted that a council member must have the ability to balance wants and needs with reality. They should have experience participating on the board of a business or non-profit formulating policies and not micromanaging the people hired to do the job.

“They should offer critiques and suggestions, but look to department heads to solve problems,” he added. “Look for a person with the broadest variety of experiences. The task in front of them is not a pleasant one and they will have to draw from their experience.”

“If you don’t have a thick skin, you shouldn’t be there,” Peterson said. “It’s a lot of work and you need to set aside a lot of time to read the prepared materials and do the work.”

The two council members who will be elected in November will become part of a five person team who must work together for the best interests of the city.

“It’s important to have a diverse council and by that I don’t mean black, white, male or female, but you need a money person, you need a person who is detail oriented, a group of people with a diverse set of skills and life experiences,” Peterson said. “It’s nothing that you will find all in one person.”

“In a perfect world you would like to see balance and diversity and feel like you’re getting quality feedback and good representation of all of the citizens in the community,” Pace said.

Both Pace and Peterson agree that money and budget will be the greatest challenge facing the new council.

“Greater needs are being expressed with less money available and there will be tough decisions over how that will be managed,” Pace said. “It’s a tough task ahead dealing with how to balance the various needs of the community.”

Next week Hburgnews looks at Harrisonburg’s School Board and the work it does.

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22 Responses to “An Insider’s Guide To City Council”

  1. Ross says:

    Q: What do you call a candidate that does not get their Party’s nomination but, then runs as an Independent?

    A: LOSER!
    One who is incompetent or unable to succeed.

  2. Ross says:

    It was in today’s DNR that Chenault ran as a Republican two years ago and lost. This time he is running as an Independent. Why?

  3. Ross says:

    According to his reasons for running as an Independent, he didn’t always see things that way, until this election?

    • JGFitzgerald says:

      One of the signs of maturity is the ability to change your mind. One of the things that makes it hard is knowing there will always be someone standing at a bend in the river swearing it’s the same water he saw the last time he was there.

  4. Ross says:

    Mr. Fitzgerald, do you have yard signs? I would like to get one if they are available.

  5. Tim says:

    Came to hburgnews looking for an “unbiased” who’s who of the candidates in this Tuesday’s election. Anybody have a suggestion?

    • Ross says:

      Well, here is the way I see things as far as the Council race goes:

      Coffman is in. I don’t care for him, I think he is arrogant however, he wins.


      Byrd—Has a good chance.

      Fitzgerald—The golf course issue doesn’t help him.

      Chenault—Flip flopping from Republican to Independent will cause him to loose by 75 votes or so.

      Romero—Did not get his message out and is a new comer, puts himself next to last.

      Frank—Has worn thin on many people, The Treasurer situation and the House of Delegates race where she was in the race but, did absolutely nothing as far as campaigning. GO FIGURE. She will end up dead last.

      • CityMom says:

        Here’s another “unbiased” view. The whole race isn’t very contentious. Is it down to who has the most signs?

        Coffman isn’t in at all. Ross, you don’t seem to care for him. Cecil Gilkerson, who’s the granddaddy of Harrsionburg’s prize Parks and Rec, took him on in the DNR today. You should read it, I bet a lot of older voters will listen to Cecil. I don’t know Coffman, but everything I’ve heard about him comes with the line of “arrogant” or “pandering.”

        Fitzgerald and Chenault seem to be the most willing to have a discussion on issues and to throw out their opinions.

        Byrd seems aloof and like one of those career politicians who says my e-mail box is always open, but never actually spends time outside his social crowd.

        Frank seems like a nice person who really isn’t putting much effort into her race. It makes me wonder if she’s really all that interested.

        Romero is a newcomer who may need some seasoning to find his message. However, all these other folks were newcomers at one point and got elected. I guess that means he has the least baggage.

  6. Several people have recently asked me who I think is going to win. I’ve said each time that I have absolutely no idea, which is kind of nice, since so many local races (6th CD, 26th HoD race) are foregone conclusions. It can safely be assumed that the Republican candidate will win in those races for the foreseeable future. Not so with the city races. I like not knowing until the votes are tallied on election eve.

    I think all six candidates have at least one factor going in their favor, in terms of constituent support.

  7. mtnsailor says:

    I’ve lived in HBurg since 1977 & predict: #1 in votes= Charlie Chenault, #2= Carolyn Frank #3= Ted Byrd.

  8. hhsparent says:

    Well, Ted Byrd spends almost every Thursday morning reading at Spotswood Elementary as part of the Rotary Reads program. He is observant and approachable. He’s involved with his church and youth there. Do I hang out with him? No. But he’d be one of the first people I’d call on the current Council if I had an issue or concern that I wanted to discuss.

    I saw Greg Coffman a few weeks ago at a local store. I’ve had interactions – of a postive nature – with him in the past and while it had been some time since I’d seen him, I greeted him by name. He looked at me like I was a leper. If I was running for office I’d sure acknowledge every person that greeted me. His attitude spoke volumes to me about what kind of Council member he would be.

  9. Greg Coffman’s not even a nice person…but he is the only candidate for City Council who can be proven to have exceeded the authority granted to him, as an elected official, under Virginia law.

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