Much Ado About Nothing

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After contentious debate last spring among elected officials, city residents, political party leaders and then-candidates for City Council, May municipal elections became yesterdays news in favor of November ones. What wasnt clear, though, is what form they would take, until now. 

The City Council voted 4 to 3 last week in favor of changing nothing, despite much debate over amending Alexandrias charter to include four-year terms, staggered terms, or both and how to initiate the process. Council also discussed having elections in odd-numbered years to avoid coinciding with presidential elections.

Unable to come to a stark sentiment of at least five votes, a threshold proposed by Vice Mayor Kerry Donley for the significant constitutional change, the Council maintained the status quo, keeping elections in November every three years with no adjustments. 

There doesnt seem to be a whole lot of consensus around any of the options, Donley said of the amendment that would hinge on state approval. Unless there are five votes which would make this a clear sentiment of the Council about one of these particular options, I dont think its wise for us to make any charter amendment relative to a charter change for the election.

Before its approval last spring, some considered the November election issue a partisan one; that holding Council and School Board elections simultaneously with state and federal elections particularly in presidential years would either corner the electorate into simply voting along party lines or muddle Alexandria-specific issues with national and statewide ones, subsequently confusing voters.

Though public opinion transcended party lines, significant opposition came from the Republican camp that considered the outgoing all-Democrat Council a sitting duck making party-favoring decisions. Republican Councilman Frank Fannon and GOP-supported Independent Councilwoman Alicia Hughes spoke out against November elections back then, but had no official voice as their terms had not yet started.

Deciding the nuances of the November move was seen as a landscape for compromise among the current, mixed-party governing body not just for its differing political camps but for the differing opinions among party colleagues as well. 

I think a bipartisan solution is the only way to resolve this, Fannon said.
Councilwoman Del Pepper, a Democrat, sided with Fannon and Hughes to amend the charter in some way, and for the most part agreed with Fannon, her Republican colleague. She proposed allowing the current body and its 2012 counterpart to serve full three-year terms until 2015 elections, at which point candidates would begin serving four-year terms and avoid future local elections coinciding with presidential ones. 

Fannon proposed a similar scenario, but wanted to begin the cycle earlier November 2011 and cut the current Councils terms short by a year. But both opposed staggered terms that would elect half of its council members every odd-numbered year.

When terms are staggered it makes it possible for the incumbents not running to turn their influences and resources over to those Council members that are running who think and vote like themselves, Pepper said. This results in what I call the friends of each other system and this is not good government.

Democrat councilmen Rob Krupicka and Paul Smedberg pushed staggered terms as a caveat to four-year terms, believing them to be more engaging for voters during the campaign process. Both spoke against the current election process, which allows several candidates to debate at once, allowing others to hide in the crowd. 

That becomes the crux of the decision: whether we want to give the voters more power or less, Krupicka said. I dont want to move to four year terms and lessen public debate on issues.
Staggered terms are also in line with Alexandrias surrounding jurisdictions, Smedberg said, allowing better cooperation with regional partners. He also discounted federal elections having negative affects on local ones, calling them laughable.

This whole notion that people will be spending hours in line to vote, I think thats exaggerated in my own personal view, Smedberg said. And the [notion] that voters cant distinguish from what theyre voting for on a federal level, a state level or a local level, I think, personally, is insulting to our electorate.

While the vote to maintain the election portion of the city charter is in the books, the debate is not over. Mayor Bill Euille alluded to more discussion on the issue, as the vote was so close, and Hughes committed to proposing a referendum for the voters to decide. However, such a referendum would also require a supermajority, Euille said. 

At some later date, if folks want to bring this forward to continue to work on this, that would certainly be appropriate.

Krupicka said, Its frustrating for all of us because we see commonality in all of our comments and we also have some clear differences of opinion. Im still optimistic that over course of the next year we can have dialogue about this and perhaps find some alternatives that satisfy everyone satisfactorily.

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