Do you know what today is? If your only answer is April Fool’s Day, you don’t live in Elkins, West Virginia.
If you do live in Elkins, West Virginia and your only answer is still April Fool’s Day, you apparently haven’t entered an important date having to do with the city government into your calendar: Today is the day that the victors in the March 7 city election take office. (They were sworn in, prospectively, at a 5 p.m. ceremony at city hall last night. Congratulations, everyone!)
Yes, since 1901, when Elkins revised and readopted its charter just after absorbing South Elkins, the city’s council members and mayors have shouldered the solemn duties of their offices on a date otherwise widely associated with the opposite of solemnity.
History does not record exactly when people first started pranking each other on the first day of April, but we know they’ve been doing it for at least a few hundred years and possibly as long ago as the 1300s, when Chaucer may or may not have mentioned the custom in his Nun’s Priest’s Tale. So we can conclude that at least some of those 1901 Elkins charter drafters must have noticed the coincidence of dates they were creating, leaving us with the following possibilities: either they noticed and shrugged, or they decided it was somehow fitting and actually meant something by leaving it that way. But what?
The form of government they chartered is referred to in civics textbooks as “strong council, weak mayor,” in which virtually all authority rests with the city council and mayors have little or no real power. Nowadays “strong council, weak mayor” systems usually include a chief executive called a city manager, to whom the council delegates most of its authority in the interest of efficiency and agility.
But managers were not yet “a thing” in 1901, when those early Elkinites were giving thought to what sort of government structure would best serve their fledgling town. The first-ever U.S. city manager, one C.E. Ashburner, wouldn’t be appointed until 1908, in good old Staunton, Virginia (which certainly seems to have done well for itself over the years).
So we cannot fault the city’s founders for not chartering a manager position, but that still leaves room to wonder why they didn’t choose to institute a “weak council, strong mayor” form—the form everyone seems to assume that Elkins and every other city has. I’ve always wondered if the real authority in the city’s early days rested with the Senators on the hill (no, not those Senators, these Senators), in which case a government lacking a strong executive might have been exactly what they wanted and April Fool’s to anyone who thought it should be otherwise.
If you’re waiting for me to take the April 1st start date of this city’s terms of elected office as a chance to laugh in my sleeve about our government, you’re going to have to keep waiting. I have no idea how much respect the Elkinites of 1901 accorded their city government, but I suspect it was more than we do now and either way we need to do better on this score.
We’ve just been through a surprisingly bruising city election in which more than a few challenger platforms seemed to rest on the assumption that the Elkins city government is incompetent, unimaginative, and dominated by some vaguely defined “good old boys network.” The most charitable thing I can say in response to those critics is that they are 10 or 15 years late to the party.
But I’m also not surprised at the staying power of these misperceptions in the population at large.
During my time as city clerk (2012-2016, for those keeping track at home), I was bewildered at how quickly people were to ascribe haplessness, bad motives, and even corruption to a team of people I knew—and still know—as skillful, dedicated, bona fide public servants thinking every day about how to do their best for Elkins.
As I became more familiar with local history, I was eventually forced to admit that long-time observers of Elkins city government may have come by certain suspicions honestly, on the back of both actual missteps and the way such matters tend to become the focus of media coverage, leaving all of the city’s many accomplishments and successes un-illuminated. (As much as people claim to wish newspapers would focus on good news rather than bad, headlines about puppy dogs and rose gardens aren’t generally known to grab eyeballs in the checkout aisle.)
I’m here to tell you, though, that these suspicions are out of date. In the last 10 years, the city government of Elkins has transformed from an admittedly slapdash affair into a careful, professional operation that pays close attention to the many laws, regulations, and best practices we have the right to expect it to. (That’s not a boast, because I came aboard when that transformation was already well underway, although I’m proud to have been able to lend a hand.)
And let me just say, it’s not easy paying close attention to all of those laws, regulations, and best practices. Some of them are vital and well-thought-out, and some are just silly and ill-fitting. For example, imagine how it sounded to the various elected and other officials who started to pass through my office one day in my third year as clerk when I told them that the coffee machine that used to reside in the adjacent meeting room was now in one of the disused offices down the hall.
“Health inspector said we had to move it,” I explained. “I guess you can’t serve and store food in a carpeted room because you can’t sanitize the floor.”
This was, of course, an April’s Fool Day joke. The real reason I’d asked building maintenance to move the break room stuff to that other office was so that my desk would no longer serve as a rest stop along the highway to the caffeine, cutting down on interruptions and helping me accomplish more of the people’s business each day. Perhaps there is a lesson about our regulatory environment in the fact that no one had any trouble believing me.
Anyway, please join me in wishing good luck to the mayor and council members starting new terms today—good luck, and a happy April Fool’s Day. Whether the 1901 Elkinites meant anything by the coincidence of dates they created, we’ll never know. But we can and probably should choose to interpret the overlap of silliness and solemnity that they left us with as a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. Message received, Elkinites of yesteryear, and a happy April Fool’s Day to you, too.
Sutton is an independent researcher, writer, and consultant interested in civic engagement, the functioning of democracy at the community level, and helping local governments do their work effectively and transparently. He is the president and principal consultant of Cotterpin Consulting. You can find him on Twitter, if you’d like.