Some Citizens Want to Elect Mayor

Petition begins to request change to charter

By Craig Richards, LNNUSA.com

PETERSBURG – In today’s political landscape of cancel culture some Petersburg residents want to silence the mayor – or at least control who is doing the talking. But those individuals supporting this movement feel that cancel culture is directed at them – that their voices are not being heard.

At least two public officials may be the movements biggest supporter – Councilor Treska Wilson-Smith and the Mayor himself. “If you have enough support there, I’m all for it,” Mayor Sam Parham said. Councilor Wilson-Smith said she has been in support of this for some time. “Before I even got on council, I’ve has been asking council to allow the citizens to put who they want into office. Every year since being on council, I continue to bring it up. Citizens have spoken over and over about having the opportunity to vote for their own mayor. Yet, the citizens are once again, not being heard,” Councilor Wilson-Smith said.

Council support would be important. Since the election of a mayor is defined in the city charter, only the council can invoke change. If such action were warranted, city council would make a charter change request to the State.

But how did this recent movement gain traction? After floating the idea out through social media, Barbara Hoosier of Petersburg found a great deal of support. She put an initial post raising the question as a bit of a public interest poll on two local Facebook sites. After receiving over a hundred affirmative responses, Hoosier decided to take the next step.

Barbara Hoosier is not what you would call a political activist. She may be best categorized as a community activist. Hoosier serves as the Assistant Secretary of the Petersburg Anti-poverty Commission. She was also employed in the city by CARES as a shelter manager and the manger of the service center on Washington Street. She served in that role for eight years until the shelter was shut down. Hoosier stayed on at the service center until the pandemic hit. She said that as a 70 years old facing the threat of COVID exposure she had to leave her post to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. She continues to volunteer with the church and delivers food.

After some time away, Hoosier returned home in 2012 and said she noticed the city had changed and not for the better. She said as they were having the poverty meetings people seem to be uniformed. “Our people don’t seem to know what’s going on in the city,” she said. But she isn’t particularly looking to create a strong Mayor. “I think the mayor should be elected by the people. Then we can hold someone accountable for things going on in the city,”

Hoosier said. But as for the role she feels that it should serve as more of a community liaison between the government and the people. “The mayor should be a system for more information/communication for the citizens,” she added. She also believes it should be open to anyone, councilor or not.

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Her proposal appears to fall between the current system and a strong mayor. “I think if people voted for the Mayor, they would expect more answers and expect the Mayor would make sure councilors were addressing citizens’ concerns in their wards. She feels it makes the position more accountable to the people.

That may not be far enough according to current Mayor Parham. “I think now is the time to have a discussion with the citizens with what they want,” he said. Parham explained that the current structure and public perception of the position may be leading to citizens frustration. He explains that people want someone to answer their questions – to get things done. But Parham explains that while he hears from many citizens, he remains one councilor with one vote.

But he sees an opportunity to review and perhaps change the current structure. With the city in a period of an interim city manager, it would be easier to transition now. He said the current Mayoral structure demands a great deal of time. Between fielding citizens’ concerns, talking to businesses looking at the city, serving in the councilor capacity, working a full-time job, and balancing a home life the ceremonial position is a consuming task – with little compensation. The mayor gets an extra $2,000 per year, $8,500 total annually for his efforts.

Parham believes there are two options. The city could go to a strong mayor position, eliminating the city manager position or a hybrid mayor that is voted in and answers directly to the people. The first gives the mayor the accountability and authority to act. The second makes the mayor accountable to the citizens to maintain the position but still limits authority to instruct staff directly to address concerns. Regardless of the system he said the mayor position is already a full-time job. “If we need to go down this route in which they want a mayor to have some power we really need to look and do that,” Parham said.   

According to the petition website fifty individuals had signed it in the first five days. Ultimately Hoosier is looking for one hundred signatures before presenting it to council. Those interested in signing the petition or more information may go to the site by clicking the link below:

Hoosier is committed to this cause. She said that if council ignores or does not act on the petition it will not end there. “I’m not sure what my next step would be,” she said. But she is confident that things can’t stay the same. “I’m not going to let it go,” Hoosier said.  

The city is in a time of leadership transition. Council has the authority to request charter change. A movement has begun. But for now, the petition remains online and only a formal presentation to council will determine its future.

MEMBERSHIP BONUS: LNN USA members will receive a copy of the response from the Division of Legislative Services detailing the process to change the charter sent to Ms. Hoosier and the online petition context in the weekly LNN Insider report. To support LNN USA and receive additional news, articles, editorials, and special reports go to the subscribe page at LNNUSA.com for details.