Lazy August Not Deterring Growing Concern for November Referendum

F.C. Activists Aroused Over Ballot Measure On Local Election Date

One of the most contentious issues in years in the contention-soaked City of Falls Church, the matter of the date of its local elections, is beginning to reheat up the email currents through town this month.

This November, the F.C. City Council arranged for the placement of a public referendum on the ballot with the promise that the outcome will resolve the issue, once and for all. Now, the Commonwealth of Virginia has come forward with the official language of the ballot measure, passing it on to the F.C. City Treasurer last week.

“Should the City of Falls Church amend Section 3.01 of its Charter to hold elections of members of the City Council in the month of November rather than the month of May,” the language reads, but it then goes on to present the detailed proposed rewrite of that charter section, and that’s where things get more convoluted.
The release of the draft referendum language has triggered heightened concern on both sides of the issue, among those who want municipal elections to remain held on the first Tuesday in May, as they have for decades, and those who think that, because of an undisputed record of higher voter turnouts, they should begin for the first time to be held on the first Tuesday in November.

It’s a dicey issue for both sides, where emotions run deep. Fear persists in both camps of the consequences of a low voter turnout this coming November, when only virtually-uncontested races for the re-election of the City’s new (as a result of redistricting) State Sen. Dick Saslaw and long-time incumbent State Del. Jim Scott, with currently no opponent whatsoever, and Commonwealth Attorney will be be ballot.

Engines of referendum campaign organizing, therefore, are being fired up this month.

The discussion of changing the date from May to November began in the fall of 2009 when first-term Councilman Lawrence Webb brought the matter forward. It seemed clear, he said, that voter turnout rates are significantly higher in November, when presidential, U.S. Senate and congressional and state office races are decided, than in May, when only local City Council and School Board races are on the ballot.

The logic seemed spotless that moving the local elections to November would stimulate more voter response to local issues and give the City the benefit of the will of a significantly-wider segment of its electorate.

But howls of protest arose almost instantaneously from the City’s Old Guard, as well as some among the New Guard who’d already acclimated themselves to what pundits affectionately refer to as the “Falls Church Way.” They felt vociferously that moving the election date would taint the local non-partisan election process by muddling it with the partisan wranglings of races for bigger offices.

While assiduously denying they were suggesting a “litmus test” for voting, they insisted that, even if the turnouts of routinely far lower in May, those who do show up to vote then are those that care the most about the community, and should therefore be empowered with determining its direction.

In November 2009, the News-Press editorialized in favor of the move from May to November local elections, and in two votes on in December 2009 and the final one in early January 2010, the F.C. City Council voted to do just that.

Tempers flared and emotions ran high throughout the process. Then Councilmen Dan Sze and Dan Maller took angry exception to Councilman (and now Mayor) Nader Baroukh’s comment that proposing the switch was “un-American in my view.” Councilman Webb strongly rebutted Councilman David Snyder’s claim that ignoring 138 petition signatures favoring the May date amounted to “disenfranchising” citizens. Webb said that as a member of two minority groups (African-American and gay), disenfranchising anyone was the furthest thing from his mind.

But as required, after the final 5-2 vote to move the date to November (then-Mayor Robin Gardner, then-Vice Mayor Hal Lippman, Sze, Maller and Webb voting “yes,” Baroukh and Snyder voting “no”) the U.S. Justice Department sanctioned the switch in the spring of 2010. The first November election was to be this fall, in 2011.

Then came the May 2010 local Falls Church election. Lippman and Maller lost bids for re-election and Sze chose not to run. Two first-time candidates came onto the Council – Ira Kaylin and Johannah Barry – and the newly-constituted Council, sworn in in that July 1, elected Baroukh as Mayor.

After the summer haitus, one of the first matters to come before the new Council last fall was the reversal of the January 2011 vote. By last November, the final vote to repeal that vote was achieved – Baroukh, Snyder, Kaylin, Barry and Ron Peppe voting for the repeal and Gardner and Webb sticking to their earlier positions to vote “no.”

The condition was added, however, that the matter also be put to a referendum of the City’s voters. Even though such a referendum would be only “advisory” in nature, and not with the force of law, the Council last November agreed that it would conform with the wishes of the voters in that referendum, whichever way they go.

So, Falls Church citizens should not be surprised as, moving toward this fall, they find a lot of frenzied campaigning on both sides of this issue. Advocates on both sides are setting their sights on the City’s annual Fall Festival and Taste of Falls Church event on Sept. 17.

Among other things, there is concern for the proposed wording of the referendum. Will it be clear to voters, or not? The inclusion of the lengthy, tortuous proposed language of a revamped section of the City charter appears off-putting to anyone.

Emails are already flying about arrangements for public forums, who will or won’t sponsor them, and so forth, going into the October crunch time. All the City’s major citizen activist groups, the Citizens for a Better City (CBC), Village Preservation and Improvement Society (VPIS), the Chamber of Commerce and League of Women Voters have been approached so far, and with a lot of division within the ranks of many of them on this matter, no conclusive agreements about plans for spreading public information on the matter have been reached yet.