F.C. Council OKs, 6-1, Toothless Effort at Non-Partisan Elections

In an action acknowledged to be more symbolic than substantive, the Falls Church City Council voted 6-1 Monday night to officially seek a state legislatively-approved change to its charter aimed at “providing some comfort to citizens” who hope that future elections in Falls Church will remain non-partisan.

The measure, introduced by Councilman Lawrence Webb, was precipitated by the outcome of the Nov. 8 public referendum, when voters in Falls Church determined by a 2-to-1 margin that local elections should be shifted from May to November.

Leaders of major City civic organizations, including the Citizens for a Better City and Village Preservation and Improvement Society, signed a petition read by Vice Mayor David Snyder tonight strongly urging action to help keep elections for local offices non-partisan.

However, F.C. City Attorney John Foster and most Council members affirmed the severe limitations on how far the Council can go to mandate non-partisan elections. In fact, as Council member Robin Gardner (the only “no” vote tonight) stated, the proposed charter change would change nothing in terms of current city practices. It states only that candidates must qualify for the ballot by petition only, and not by a party nomination. In fact, the petition method has been the only one ever used in the city to date.

While Gardner voted “no” because of her charge of the ineffectiveness of the measure, Council member Johannah Barry conceded the measure “may give residents a sense of confidence” in the desire for non-partisan election, and Councilman Ira Kaylin noted that “it may not have any long term impact,” but that it might “provide some comfort to citizens.”

As City Attorney Foster pointed out, First Amendment guarantees cannot prevent a political party from endorsing candidates and giving them financial support, when though it is already a state law that no party affiliations can accompany names on the ballot in local elections.

Mayor Nader Baroukh confirmed the limits of the measure in his summary comments, concurring with Gardner about “what we can and cannot do.” He said, “This is not a magic bullet…We cannot legislate to prohibit partisanship.” He said the best chance of maintaining non-partisan elections was to “ask political parties to refrain from partisan activity.”

In a sole comment from the public on the subject at the meeting, City resident Miles Grant urged the Council to provide as much opportunity for public input and discourse on the measure at it did in determining the public’s will on when local elections should be held.

Grant, who has lived in Falls Church for a year-and-a-half, is a political activist who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for a vacated state assembly seat in Arlington in 2009, and is now on the Falls Church City Democratic Committee.

That committee’s chair, Betty Coll, was present with Grant at Monday’s meeting, although she did not speak during the public hearing. In an email to fellow committee members, she said, “The city attorney clearly stated that this charter change in no way stops political parties from endorsing and financially supporting candidates.” She added, “The political parties’ right to free speech cannot be altered by state and/or city legislation. It then begs the question: why did they vote for a change that doesn’t change anything? As my friend says, it’s a rule with no teeth and no gums.”

Prior to the November referendum vote, Coll stated that her committee has no interest in endorsing candidates for local elections.

But that issue has been fought over, sometimes heatedly within the committee on more than one occasion in the last decade, and it is not yet known whether the decision Nov. 20 by the non-partisan local candidate vetting organization, the Citizens for a Better City, to cease its 52-year policy of nominating and campaigning for City Council and School Board candidates will change sentiments within the local Democratic committee, or for that matter, its Republican, Green or Libertarian counterparts.