Moving Municipal Elections Easy But Council Members Remain Unsure

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by Valerie Garner

At the request of Councilman Sherman Lea and a nod from Mayor Bowers at the May 7 council meeting, acting City Attorney Tim Spencer was instructed to look into the possibility of holding local elections in November. At that time Spencer couldn’t give exactly what steps need to be taken to make such a move a reality.

In 2002 a bill passed in the General Assembly (HB 378) that gave municipalities the option for November council elections. According to the Attorney General’s Office it has been enshrined in the Code of Virginia Section 24.2-222.1 ever since. A simple resolution by council would get it done; another option would be a citizen referendum.

This is not the first time this issue has been visited. In the 2010 elections it was a topic for candidates along with non-partisan elections. The three candidates who won election answered the question as follows:

Bill Bestpitch said, “I support moving city council elections to November, not only to encourage more voter participation but also to eliminate the cost of separate elections in May.”

Ray Ferris said, “Moving Election Day to November is certainly a tempting idea, but if it means coupling local elections with national or state contests, I am against it.”

Dave Trinkle’s answer was unclear. “I believe there are many benefits to having the election in November, the main one being reduction of costs and one ‘political season’ instead of two. The only negative would be that local issues may get lost in the mix with State and National issues.”

In a council briefing following the elections then City Attorney Bill Hackworth told council all it would take was a resolution. With no clamoring by city residents to change elections to November, the issue faded from their radar until another May election rolled around.

Neither rain, nor sleet nor snow keeps 15 percent of dutiful citizens from voting in May. The other 85 percent of registered voters who don’t vote in May are not going to be the ones pressing council to change the elections to November.

This past week I queried four council members again.

Vice Mayor Dave Trinkle is against it saying, “I favor spring elections as I believe local issues will get over-run by national issues and party politics. We do need to get higher voter turnout somehow.”

Ray Ferris said, “From what I’ve heard from elected officials in other jurisdictions where municipal elections have been moved to November, it seems to be the consensus that November municipal elections are a mistake.”

Court Rosen said he is “open to a discussion with citizens about it. That said, and having attended many functions with local officials around the state over the last four years, including at Virginia Municipal League functions, the consensus I hear from those representing localities where elections have been moved from May to November is that it is a mistake and that May dates work best for local elections.”

Bill Bestpitch said, “I agree with Sherman that this is an important issue and should be decided with lots of citizen input, so I will listen carefully to the community before deciding how to vote … My concern would be that, while more voters may show up, they may not vote for city council candidates at all, or their votes could be less informed.”

Mayor Bowers and Lea are both on the same page in giving it serious consideration from indications at the May 7 council meeting. Anita Price did not respond.

Bestpitch, Ferris and Rosen all pointed to local candidates not being heard above the voices of those running for higher office. They pointed to issues like sold out media, voters who would vote straight party line anyway or not vote down the full ballot.

All council members share Ray Ferris’ frustration. “I don’t know why folks don’t vote. Voting is easy and only takes a few minutes. The polls are open for 13 hours on Election Day and there’s a polling place within a mile of every voter in the City of Roanoke.”