May-November romance: Staunton examining options for moving local elections

VoteThe Top Story by Chris Graham

Dickie Bell hears the question more than you would think.
“I get asked quite a bit – why don’t you have your elections in November?” the Staunton City Council member said, and he admits that he doesn’t have a ready answer.
Bell is among a group of members of the city council backing a move to move council and school-board elections from May to November – possibly in time to affect next year’s election cycle.
To Bell, the benefits are obvious.

“First of all, I don’t think there’s any question that it would increase the turnout for council elections,” Bell told The Augusta Free Press.

Another key consideration for Bell – money.

“If we can save $7,500 every election year, I think that’s enough to be concerned about,” Bell said.

That was one of the chief reasons that Charlottesville decided in 2004 to move its city-council and school-board elections from May to November – with the change taking effect with this year’s election cycle.

“It costs us $35,000 to hold a standalone election – when it really doesn’t cost us anything extra to have a November election, because there’s always an election in November,” said Charlottesville mayor David Brown, who was a member of city council when the decision was made in 2004.

In so changing the election cycle from May to November, Brown effectively cut his term of service six months – he would have come up for re-election in May 2008, but now is on the ballot for this coming November.

It’s too early in the game to tell what will happen in Staunton if city leaders there decide to make a change in the election calendar – the next city elections are scheduled for May of ’08, but the city has the ability to move the elections back to November 2008, with council members elected then taking office in January 2009.

An issue for Charlottesville City Councilor Dave Norris there has to do with the awkwardness of seating council members in the middle of the fiscal year – which for Virginia localities begins on July 1, or the same day that cities that hold municipal elections in May seat new city-council and school-board members.

“The city council that’s going to get the budget cycle under way is going to be a different city council than the one that actually votes on the budget,” Norris told the AFP. “We start putting our budget together in October. The new city council doesn’t start until January – and then we vote in March and April. So it’s going to be very disjointed because of the uncertainty of who’s going to be there when we actually vote on it.”

Brown dismisses this argument – based on the experience of neighboring localities who seat their elected leaders in January after November elections.

“I don’t think that’s an issue. Certainly it’s no different than what the Albemarle County or Augusta County or any other board of supervisors have to deal with – which is having people seated in January. I don’t think anybody has ever complained that the new supervisors are ineffective their first year,” Brown said.

“Through the course of a campaign, you learn a lot. And you certainly have the opportunity between November and January to immerse yourself in the issues – get the budget books out, and hopefully be in a position when January comes to hit the ground running,” Brown told the AFP.

Bell agrees with Brown that the seating issue shouldn’t be a problem.

“That is in the middle of the budget process,” Bell said. “But the fact is, up until that point, the budget is a staff function. It’s not like we are actively day to day involved in formulating that budget. The city manager submits us a budget, then we start to take it apart. And that never happens before Jan. 1.

“The county has been doing it that way, and it seems to work for them. I just don’t see that as a problem, personally,” Bell said.

The bigger matter for Staunton vice mayor Dave Metz is that the city elections could get overshadowed in the competition with state and national races on the November ballot. Norris in Charlottesville raises the same concern.

“I don’t like to call it increasing turnout – because you’re not really increasing turnout, per se,” Norris said. “You’re getting bigger turnout by default by piggybacking on the existing election cycles, but it’s coming at the expense of having a real sustained focus on local issues – and so my concern back then was that the kinds of issues that will come up in a city-council campaign could get drowned out if you threw it in with all the other campaigns going on at any given time.

“I appreciated the single-minded focus that the May city-council elections allowed us,” Norris said.

Waynesboro City Council member Lorie Smith has a similar outlook on the issue.

“My gut reaction is that I kind of like the idea of having spring elections – because I think separates more of the state and national politics from local politics when you have a year when both are going on. So I think that it allows more focus to be on the issues in May in local elections – and that to me is an advantage,” Smith said.

“I think that there could be a propensity for folks voting in a local election in a presidential-election year or a year in which there is a hotly contested state election to bring some of those more partisanship mindsets to the local level – where you really don’t see a lot of that, at least in my experience to this point,” Smith said.

“Right now, you see the local elections more or less focused on the issues rather than voting along partisan lines. And I think that moving the elections to November could tend to introduce a little of that to the local level – and I’m not sure that the localities need that,” Smith told the AFP.

Of note is that both Smith and Waynesboro mayor Tom Reynolds said the issue of when the city holds its local elections has never come up in discussions with other council members or members of the general public.

“It’s never come up in my years on council. I just haven’t heard from anybody who sees this as a big issue,” Reynolds told the AFP.

But it is in Staunton – and it will be over the course of the next few weeks as city council holds a series of public-input meetings to get a more formal feel of what the community wants to do.

“We’re in complete agreement that we need public input on this – because it is their government,” Bell said.

For Bell, he hopes that the decision will be made ultimately to make the big move.

“When you mention Election Day, everybody thinks November. Hardly anybody thinks May. It almost seems like a no-brainer to me,” Bell said.

“I know there are lots of things to consider, but I really do think it’s a good idea,” Bell said.

  

Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.

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