Power to the people?


If the decision were up to Councilwoman Alicia Hughes, Alexandria taxpayers would decide when and how they want to vote in future elections.

Because of what has become a politically charged reformation of the city’s election processes, Hughes has drafted a City Council resolution that would place a referendum at the polls this November.

The proposal also charges a citizens commission with crafting the language for the poll questions on the ballot this fall.

“This has been a subject of great debate for a number of years in Alexandria and I think the way to put it to bed or to rest is to allow the people to decide what to do,” Hughes said.

“I think the matter is more politically charged than people would want to admit to,” she said. “I want to take the political charge out of this by taking it to the people directly.”

The city’s municipal elections moved from May to November last year amid a contentious debate. Republicans seemed to prefer keeping the elections in May, reasoning that state and national November elections might dilute city issues for voters, and opposed letting the outgoing all-Democrat Council decide. 

Democrats seemed to side together as well, insisting that the electorate is completely capable of voting for issues, not parties. 

However, residents and elected officials from all sides of the aisle fell into both camps.

Hughes’s drafted resolution calls for the Hobson Commission a bipartisan committee that recommended preserving the status quo election process in 2007 to fashion the wording of three referendum questions: Whether Alexandria’s next election should be in November 2011 or 2012, if terms should be staggered or remain in a single block and if the terms should be changed from three to four years.

Explaining the motivation for the resolution on Wednesday, Hughes said that, because the Council’s authority comes from voters, its constituents should decide how they want that power distributed.

That sentiment differs greatly from Vice Mayor Kerry Donley. He, like Hughes, had not started his term when the vote to change the city’s election month took place last spring.

“Quite frankly, the Council is elected to make decisions and I don’t see that a referendum right now should substitute for our inability to arrive at a compromise,” Donley said.

“Because we can’t arrive at a decision … would we start doing the same thing on land use planning and fiscal matters?” he said. “I don’t think so.”

As it stands right now, Alexandria’s next general election date, November 2012, is coupled with a presidential election year and Council members are caught between details and a deadline.

Avoiding the long voting lines and ballots that would come with an election that year is one point where city leaders have common ground, according to Councilman Frank Fannon. The main sticking point involves staggering elections to limit the potential for wholesale changes.

“I think a lot of the City Council agrees that they should be in November 2011 but the issue we’re stuck on is basically the format,” Fannon said.

“That’s kind of where we’re stuck right now,” he said, adding that he would likely support a ballot referendum.

Hughes, meanwhile, said she “would be pleasantly surprised” if the resolution passes Tuesday night. Even if approved, there’s no guarantee a referendum would yield the results that she would like to see, which, she said, “may not necessarily include staggered terms.”

“Whatever the people decide I would be content to live with,” Hughes said. “It may not turn out the way I want it to, but I submit myself to the will of the people and put the will of the people above what I would want for myself.”