Spirited Debate at CBC Forum on Election Date Change
By GEORGE BROMLEY
Falls Church Times Staff
Members of the Citizens for a Better City (CBC) and other Falls Church residents met last night at the Byron to discuss shifting municipal elections from May to November.
Councilmen Dan Sze and Lawrence Webb made their case for the change, but many of the participants expressed serious concerns about such a move, warning it could lead to a loss of focus on local issues and greater partisanship, without achieving any significant savings.
Mr. Sze, whose four year term expires on June 30, said that the proposal was intended as an an effort to increase voter turnout. He suggested that a shift could save as much as $60,000, equivalent to two days furlough for all City employees.
Mr. Sze advised that the measure would have be to approved by a majority of the Council by January 1 in order to be in effect for the 2010 election cycle. Noting that these were difficult economic times for the City, Mr. Sze stated “I want to be able to work for citizens over the next few months without worrying about whether I’ll be re-elected or not.”
Councilman Webb, who was elected last year, recalled that during his campaign he found that many residents were unaware the City held elections in May. In his view, “By moving to November we’ll have a more engaged electorate. It will provide an opportunity for the majority of our citizens to participate in the process.”
Mr. Webb said the savings realized by the shift would be closer to $20,000, considerably lower than the range of $30,000-$60,000 offered by Mr. Sze.
Councilman Webb maintained that the City’s costs were bound to increase in any case as the Commonwealth has stopped supplementing May elections. He related that this factor has led many other Virginia cities to have “a conversation on moving their municipal elections to November.”
Mr. Webb advised that Falls Church would hold public hearings on the issue, stating the topic would be discussed at a Council work session next Monday night, though citizen comments would not be accepted at that meeting.
The relevant working papers for the session are available here. The documents include a copy of the report on the issue prepared by the League of Women Voters in 2001.
After the councilmen’s statements, CBC President Deb Gardner opened the forum to comments. In true Falls Church tradition, a spirited debate ensued.
Marty Meserve, a former vice mayor, was not enthusiastic about the proposal, calling the increased turnout argument “a bit specious. I’m interested in having people involved with the issues. In May we have a unique opportunity to speak to constituents about their concerns. In November, with three levels of debate (local, state, national), that’s lost. And why are people more enfranchised in November than they are in May?”
Barb Cram, a 25 year City resident, felt that May elections provided a unique intimacy with the candidates that would be lost in November and that it was far easier to focus on the election in the spring.
Edie Smolinski, former president of the Falls Church League of Women Voters, asked “Do you want informed voters in May or uninformed voters in November? I’ve seen a minor party be elected in Falls Church and do a good job. I don’t think they’d be elected [in November].”
Lou Olom, one of the founders of CBC in the late 1950s, felt that May turnout trends depended primarily upon the issues facing the electorate. “You’d get great turnout with [ the date change] issue.” Recent results support his theory. Turnout in May 2008 was more than double that in 2006.
Concerning the trend in other jurisdictions, Molly Novotny, whose baby proved a model of comportment, noted Leesburg’s “conversation” on the issue had ended Tuesday night after a public hearing, with its council voting down a move to November. Details of the town’s decision are available here.
EDA member Bruce Swenson and Ed Strait questioned the increased length and complexity of the ballot if it included state and national elections, but Mr. Sze said voters have coped well with longer ballots in jurisdictions that have shifted their elections to November.
Mr. Swenson stated that Council and staff time might be put to better use dealing with the City’s financial problems. Mr. Webb responded that staff input had been minimal and that he had done his own research on the matter.
Marty Behr, who expressed concerns about increased partisanship if the move were made, did not think a decision should be based on projected savings, which she felt were not significant. Ms. Behr also said she found the rush to make the change objectionable. Ms. Smolinski added that any savings only would be achieved every other year, not annually.
Mr. Webb denied that proponents of the move were intent on making the election more partisan. School Board member Rosaura Aguerrebere concurred, stating that no one had asked if she were a Democrat or a Republican when she ran for office in California.
However, many of the participants disagreed with the officials’ stance. Pete Behr stated that the election would cease to be non-partisan and that the state and national contests would over-shadow the City races. “The issue is significant enough to have it decided by referendum, rather than by Council members who have a vested interest.”
Mr. Strait pointed out that canvasing would be very difficult if the election were moved to November. “There would be a great deal of competition for time, money, and space.” Another participant noted that people canvasing for a non-partisan candidate probably could not do so for a partisan one, and vice-versa.
Another attendee pointed out that management of City affairs would be complicated if the change were made because Board members would be taking office in the middle of the school year and Council members would begin their terms in the middle of the budget cycle.
Ms. Meserve asked “Do you think the change should be made by four people (a majority of the Council)? Councilman Webb replied that the conversation needs to happen.
Discussion drifted a bit toward the end of the meeting. Several people lamented the difficulty in recruiting candidates to run for local office. Ms. Gardner opined “If we’re going to cling to May, people will have to come forward.”
Kim Maller suggested School Board chairman Ron Peppe’s recent proposal to reduce the number of members on both the Council and the Board from seven to five was a possible solution. Mr. Peppe had offered the idea in a comment on a Times story.
After Mr. Sze thanked the participants for their input, Mr. Webb concluded “We have fewer and fewer people voting in May. We want everyone to have the opportunity to vote and to offer it when everyone knows it’s election time.”
In a brief discussion with the Times after the meeting Mr. Webb advised he was not opposed to having the issue decided by referendum.
By George Bromley
October 30, 2009