If you go…

What: Milford City Council charter debate

When: 6:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 24

Where: Milford City Hall, 201 S. Walnut St.

More info: 422-6616


Next month, the Milford City Council will meet to review the fruits of a year-long project to review, update and revise the city’s most fundamental laws: the Milford City Charter.

“We’ve spent a lot of time on this, and I think everybody needs to weigh in on how we’ve done and what they want to see,” said Councilman Mike Spillane, who chaired the council’s charter review committee. “I think the most important thing is to be as current as possible.”

Spillane, Mayor Dan Marabello and Councilman Owen Brooks have met monthly since mid-2008 to review and update the city’s fundamental laws, and presented a draft of their changes for the full council to review this week. But the work’s only getting started.

The charter is the city’s constitution, and changing it isn’t an easy job. Even after a year of committee meetings to hammer out a list of changes, to actually approve them requires a public hearing, then a council vote and finally approval by the Delaware General Assembly.
But before any of those steps, the council will meet again to decide on what, exactly, their proposed draft is going to look like.

“What’s in there now isn’t anything that’s permanent,” Spillane said. “These are some ideas that the people who worked on this committee would like to see, and we need the full council to weigh in on them.”

There are three areas where the committee couldn’t agree on a recommendation. 

The first deals with borrowing money. The city has the power to sell bonds valued in the millions of dollars to pay for projects too big to fund with property taxes — like the $15 million the government borrowed last year for utility upgrades. Changes suggested by Marabello and City Manager David Baird could allow the government to borrow money up to a certain dollar value without a referendum, although what that number would actually be is still up in the air.

Spillane has argued for the language to stay as it is, with any bond borrowing needing a popular vote to go through.

“I think when it comes to borrowing money, that it should go back to a vote for the people of the city,” Spillane said.

Baird said a minimum figure to call a referendum “would make it easier for the city to move forward with large projects.”

Another power under debate deals with a little-noticed clause that allows the council to borrow up to the value of a year’s worth of tax revenue without holding the usual public referendum, in certain situations. As proposed, it reads:

“City Council may authorize, by resolution, short term borrowing by the City without the necessity of a Special Election. The City of Milford may borrow money up to the amount of the annual tax billings. The borrowed money shall be for one of the following: operating deficits, emergencies declared by Council, and short term capital project anticipative funding. The money shall be paid back in no longer than five (5) years.”

There are two debates related to that clause — the first over whether it should be in the charter at all, and the second over the word “anticipative.”

“I’m trying to stay consistent — I think if we’re going to borrow money, the people should approve that,” Spillane said.

Baird said he thinks “anticipative funding” doesn’t allow for any of the situations where the council would really need to borrow money for construction without time for a public vote.

“My concern was that, with that wording, it would mean we would almost have to predict what we were going to need it for,” he said. “Once you get into an emergency, by that point it’s not anticipative. It’s already happened.”

Except for the first sentence, that paragraph is taken word-for-word from the current charter. Baird said he doesn’t know of any time when the city has actually used that power.

Finally, the list of the mayor’s powers includes nothing about his or her authority to decide what business goes on the agenda for each city council meeting. Marabello exercises that power now, but there’s nothing in the charter saying that he can. The committee couldn’t agree on whether to change that, or how to word it.

Other changes include requiring candidates in city elections to register at least 60 days in advance, instead of the current 30. There are a host of edits to the formatting and organization of the document that don’t change any of thee actual text, designed to make it easier to navigate.

“The current charter’s a little bit of a hodgepodge, and this provides some structure,” Baird said.