On Wednesday February 23, the town council of Shepherdstown, WV held a meeting open to the public to discuss the possibility of the town changing its status to a “home rule” municipality. Members of the Eastern Panhandle may be familiar with the term “home rule.” Over the past two years, Martinsburg, Charlestown, Ranson and Harpers Ferry have applied and been accepted into the WV Home Rule Pilot Program. According to the WV Home Rule website, the purpose of this program is to grant participating municipalities the right “to implement ordinances, acts, resolutions, rules and regulations without regard to state laws.”
Since the Home Rule Pilot Program began in 2007, twenty-eight West Virginia municipalities have been accepted, including Wheeling, Huntington, Parkersburg, Morgantown and even our own state capitol, Charleston.
In order for a municipality to be granted home rule status, it must first draft an application in which the town describes why it desires home rule status and provide a list of ordinances the town proposes to enact if granted. The town must then hold multiple meetings that are open to the public for comments, concerns and criticism. This past Wednesday Shepherdstown held one such public meeting.
Community members packed the small meeting hall, some overflowing into the adjacent room. Many of the Shepherdstown business owners were present along with an array of concerned citizens, who spoke their minds on the home rule proposition. Overwhelmingly, the majority of those who spoke were opposed to the council’s proposition. However, it was not necessarily the concept of home rule that upset so many, but the ordinances town council had suggested in their application.
Some of the notable proposed ordinances that irked citizens are as follows:
- A 1% sales tax imposed on taxable goods within municipal limits.
- A requirement that all bars in town stop serving alcohol at 2 AM instead of 3 AM
- Granting ABCA (Alcoholic Beverage Control Administration) powers directly to local police, allowing police officers to enter and investigate any establishment serving alcohol in town at any time.
- The installation of traffic law photo-monitoring devices
For a more comprehensive look at the council’s propositions, you can review the full application that was discussed on Wednesday. While you are at it, you can check out the application of each of the twenty-eight WV home rule municipalities here. If you do, you may notice something interesting: many of the proposed ordinances are the same from town to town – verbatim.
Clearly, home rule status is something that appeals to many local governments in West Virginia. The possibility of a town government circumventing state politics seems to be an attractive proposition. After all, most home rule municipalities cited “greater flexibility to operate in a more cost-effective, efficient and timely manner” as a primary reason for seeking home rule status. However, all new ordinances put forth by a home rule municipality must first be approved by the West Virginia Home Rule Board, which consists of seven men (two of which are non-voting members), all appointed to their position – not voted upon. So this begs the question, does home rule status grant a town more freedom and flexibility or less?
This process is open to the public for a reason; your participation is the only way you can make a difference. And even if you don’t live in Shepherdstown, do not think this legislation will not affect you. Do you shop in Shepherdstown? Do you work, dine or go to school in Shepherdstown? Do you drive through town regularly as part of your commute? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, home rule in Shepherdstown will definitely affect you.
There will be another public meeting in March during which the Shepherdstown council will propose a new draft of the home rule application, hopefully, having taken into consideration the concerns voiced this past Wednesday. I urge you to come out and make your voice heard or at least your presence felt.
Your community needs you.
Video by Kyra Soleil