F.C. Council Has Long Emotional Debate Monday
By a 4-3 vote taken at 11:15 p.m. following a lengthy debate Monday night, the Falls Church City Council took the first step toward moving the City’s municipal elections from May to November. The vote affirmed the preliminary “first reading” of an ordinance that is now slated to come back for a final approval on Dec. 14.
Issues like when the switch would occur, in 2010 or a later year, and if it would be contingent on a public referendum or other parameters, await final resolution when the Council takes up the matter for a second vote next month.
But the matter pitted two strong forces of civic involvement against each other, and despite a lopsided citizen sentiment expressed against the change at the meeting, Mayor Robin Gardner, Vice Mayor Hal Lippman and Councilmen Dan Sze and Dan Maller remained unswayed, and voted for the epochal change.
Voting records showing the average turnout of Falls Church voters in November is more than twice as high as the average turnout in May remained the compelling factor in the majority vote. Since 2000, the average turnout in May has been 27.9 percent, and in November it has been 63.3 percent.
A state law passed in 2000 permits localities to change the date of their local elections from May to November by passing an ordinance, and since then, 15 Virginia cities and 22 towns have made the switch from May to November. Even though November is often the date for partisan elections, state law prohibits party affiliations from being attached on the ballot to candidates for city or town offices.
In January 2001, the Falls Church League of Women Voters provided a “Voter Service Report” on the pros and cons of moving Falls Church municipal elections from May to November, but the matter did not come up for serious consideration by the Falls Church City Council until this fall, when Councilmen Lawrence Webb and Dan Sze moved the issue to the front burner.
But in Monday’s 4-3 vote, Webb switched allegiance to those opposed to the ordinance for changing the date. He’d offered an alternative ordinance that called for a public referendum on the subject next year that failed, 4-2-1, prior to the big vote.
In addition to those who voted “yes” on the first reading of the ordinance, Webb and Councilman Nader Baroukh said they’d consider moving the election date, but only after more study and public input. Still, Baroukh questioned whether holding a municipal election in November could be truly non-partisan while other partisan races will be contested on the ballot.
With all the activists in Falls Church, Baroukh noted, he questioned whether they will campaign for their partisan favorite and then have to come around to knock on the same doors later to campaign for a non-partisan local candidate.
Still, at a report presented in an earlier work session, other jurisdictions that made the switch reported high levels of success and voter satisfaction.
Mayor Gardner said that while she “is not wedded” to making the transition in 2010, she worried that a citizen-initiated referendum could “hijack” the process, putting it on the ballot in an election guaranteed to have a very low voter turnout.
Overall, she said, “the numbers (comparing May to November turnouts) are very clear.” She added, “Small groups dominate in May elections.”
On the other hand, she added, “Folks who don’t turn out in May also care,” and “we have to make it easier for people.” She noted that partisanship could also overtake May elections, and not only November ones, but that hasn’t happened.
The mayor “outflanked” the large contingent of known community activists who showed up at the Council chambers to oppose the switch by running an informal poll of City residents on her Facebook page. Reading the results, Gardner found that non-traditionally-activist friends of hers were almost unanimous in their preference for the election to be held in November.
Since most City residents work outside the City, predominantly in Washington, D.C., it is not convenient for them to make it out to Falls Church for a May election, it was noted, whereas everyone is used to voting on the first Tuesday of November.
Also, since there is a turnover of 50 percent of City residents every five years, and the constant influx of new residents who don’t come with sufficient knowledge of when local elections are held, whereas they all are accustomed to voting in November.
But the main argument against voting to change the date came from those who, in various ways, objected to the process, appealing for more time to decide.
This view was expressed by a range of citizen activists, beginning with Ellen Salsbury, president of the Falls Church chapter of the League of Women Voters, who said the matter “needs to be explored in the League way.” The controversy it has caused “is reason enough to slow down the process.”
John Lawrence called it “a rush to judgment,” Michael Navatni said it is causing the Council to lose its focus on the budget, Gordon Theiss said it is “too fast, too late, with not enough citizen input,” Marty Meserve said to “slow down,” worried that “questions and suspicions” exist in a context where “perception is as strong a force as reality,” Kieran Sharpe said that voter turnout is not the only indicator to consider, and Peter Behr said that questions like “why the May turnout is not higher” need to be explored first.
Only Bob Loftun-Thune stood up to speak in favor of the switch, saying, “It is the right thing to do.”
Baroukh began the discussion among Council members by calling the ordinance “a rush to judgment.” The decision belongs to the citizens, he said, “not to four members of the Council.” He said “the timing is just wrong,” and “insensitive to citizens.” It will “disenfranchise voters,” he said.
Webb said he favored “giving most people the opportunity to vote,” but said he was concerned about providing enough time to work it through. Still, he concluded, “It is all about increasing voter participation in Falls Church.”
Sze said it is a matter of pitting fact, as in the voter turnout statistics comparing May to November, over speculation.
Lippman said “it is important to act now, or nothing will change.” Now, he said, “small groups exert disproportionate influence” on Falls Church elections. He stressed that the November turnout is “two times or even more” than in May. “That’s it,” he said.
He cited the case in 1995 when a small minority of citizens “rolled” the City Council on the renovation of the Community Center, with the result that it became “far less than it should have been,” and that one sitting Council member who served then told him “it was the one vote he regrets most.”
Councilman Dave Snyder asserted that “public opinion is overwhelmingly against” the switch, calling November elections “partisan election dates” that would blunt “accountability Falls Church style.” He said it would “disenfranchise” voters by having the effect of limiting who can run for office.
Maller noted that “national elections have nothing to do with what’s good for Falls Church,” adding that “raw emotion” in the debate “needs to be managed better.” He said, “I am not afraid to take a tentative step forward.”
Lippman contrasted the City’s “silent majority” to the “small group of people interested, motivated and involved,” who are “the same cast of characters every time.” He added, “They are in control of things where they are,” and prefer therefore “to keep things the way they are.”