Tempers Flare in Sharp Divide Over Proposal
A hot and controversial issue will come before the Falls Church City Council Monday night, as it will consider an ordinance to change the date of municipal elections in the City of Falls Church from May to November.
A consistent pattern of a dramatic contrast in levels of voter turnout led Councilmen Lawrence Webb and Dan Sze to initiate an examination of the subject last month. A resultant town hall meeting hosted by the Citizens for a Better City revealed sharp lines of demarcation on the subject, based on issues such as tradition, party affiliation, costs of running elections and, of course, voter turnout numbers.
But this week’s City Council work session Monday devolved into a brief but sharp and emotionally strained exchange among four Council members, two each on opposite sides of the issue, reflecting the seriousness of the matter in the minds of both sides on the subject.
Comparisons of the turnout levels of Falls Church voters between May and November elections show a dramatic difference. In May municipal elections, turnouts since 2000 have been around 30 percent of registered voters (except for 2006, when in an uncontested election, only 13 percent turned out). On the other hand, in November elections, turnouts are double and even triple that amount.
In fact, when it comes to November elections, the City of Falls Church prides itself in routinely having the highest or near-highest voter turnout percentages in all of Virginia. With the second-highest percentage of college graduates of any jurisdiction in the U.S., Falls Church citizens are informed and pride themselves on their civic involvement.
Vice Mayor Hal Lippman has been the most outspoken critic of low voter turnouts in May elections in recent years, including when he was re-elected last year. In that election, a high-profile public referendum was on the ballot, along with the City Council and School Board races, but still only 31.8 percent of registered voters went to the polls.
But six months later, in November last year, 80.5 percent of voters went to the polls, and similar wide disparities between May and November turnouts have characterized the entire last decade (see chart).
If a majority of the City Council decides it wants to move next May’s municipal election to November, it can do so by a simple majority vote that must be completed by the end of this year. City Attorney John Foster told the Council that it does not have the option to put the matter to a public referendum. Under the State Code, a referendum can only be initiated by a citizen petition effort, he said.
At Monday’s work session, Webb said that while he is willing to consider making the shift not in 2010, but in 2012, he stressed that addressing the subject was important.
On the other hand, Council members David Snyder and Nader Baroukh opposed even considering the matter at this time. Snyder objected to the notion that a provision in state law allowing for the switch in dates could override the City’s charter, which specifies May as the date of municipal elections. Baroukh argued that with critical budget and other matters on the Council’s plate, it is not the right time for this subject to arise.
Lippman reiterated his earlier expressions of concern for the disparity in the turnouts between May and November, as did Council members Dan Maller and Sze, and Mayor Robin Gardner.
When Gardner summed up an intense, hour-long debate of the subject, by saying she would put the matter on the agenda for this coming Monday’s public business meeting, Baroukh sought one more chance to oppose her decision.
Gardner chided him for “always insisting on the last word” after her summary remarks. Baroukh said he didn’t realize the mayor had the prerogative of the “last word,” and when Gardner said she did, Snyder loudly and angrily interjected that she did not. Gardner then accused both Baroukh and Snyder of a pattern of “little respect” for her in her role as mayor. The actual final word came from Sze, when he calmly praised the mayor for “being very magnanimous” toward Snyder and Barkouk in the situation. “I would just shut them down,” he quipped.