Council Considers Work Group To Gage Appetite for November Elections

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Councilman Bill Bestpitch
Councilman Bill Bestpitch

by Valerie Garner

Acting City Attorney Tim Spencer, on Monday, hand delivered a letter of advice to council members detailing the steps he recommended to move Roanoke City’s May municipal elections to November. The one-page letter referenced an attached two-page letter that former City Attorney Bill Hackworth gave then Mayor Ralph Smith in December 2002.

Spencer attached Hackworth’s letter that advised council of the change in Virginia Code that states: “The council of a city or town may provide by ordinance that the mayor, if an elected mayor is provided for by charter, and council shall be elected at the November general election date of any cycle as designated in the ordinance, for terms to commence January 1.”

The law states that this cannot occur between January and May general election dates. There is a section that says no term shall be shortened unless the change to November general elections is implemented in odd-number years from a May general election in even-number years. In other words, now is an opportune time.

Spencer advised, as did Hackworth that, “If council decides to move the municipal elections to November, it is my opinion that the city would need to amend Sections 4 and 16 of the city charter to ensure that our charter accurately reflects the November election date. I do not anticipate any problem with the General Assembly in approving such a Charter amendment. I would also recommend that any change in the municipal election date, be “precleared” by the United States Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

At Monday’s council meeting councilman Bill Bestpitch asked colleagues to consider forming a work group to study moving May elections to November. He suggested it be conducted in conjunction with a reduction in precincts as proposed by the electoral board. In January Melvin Williams, member of the electoral board, along with Gordon Hancock and Rev. Carl Tinsley pitched a reduction from 32 precincts to 19 precincts.

Councilman Sherman Lea was not at the 2:00 p.m. council meeting and the other members wanted to wait to consult with Lea before proceeding. Lea initiated the proposal at a prior council meeting. A resolution will be drafted for the June 4 council meeting that will include the composition of the work group. The work group was suggested to comprise of a member of the NAACP Roanoke branch, SCLC, Roanoke Neighborhood Advocates, electoral board and city council.

Councilwoman Anita Price wanted to wait for Lea’s input and Vice-Mayor Dave Trinkle wanted to see the group expanded and include forums. “There are many pros and cons,” he said.

Bestpitch didn’t want to see the issue brushed aside as in years past. “We don’t want to continue to kick the can down the road.”

In a separate conversation, Bestpitch said he would have no problem with his term being shortened if November elections were conducted in “odd years.” Odd years would coincide with the governor and general assembly elections rather than even years where presidential races blitz the airwaves.

Council members are still apprehensive on changing to November. They fear their campaigns would be overtaken by campaigns for higher office. There is also a concern that voters will either vote straight party line or not vote all the way  down the ticket so that local offices are included.

With localities feeling the funding pinch from the state and forced unfunded mandates November might turn out to be a good election fit.