Ballot proposal for City Council term extension passes

Wednesday, November 9, 2016 - 6:01pm

Ann Arbor voters approved a ballot proposal Tuesday to extend the term for city officials from two to four years and end odd-year municipal elections, with nearly 55 percent support.

Overall, 28,243 votes were cast in favor and 23,456 against.

The proposal was placed on the ballot by City Council in a 7-4 vote in June, in what proponents said was an effort to improve voter turnout by ensuring all city elections would take place during presidential or midterm election years. Under the current system, the mayor and each City Council member must run for re-election every two years, with five council seats up for election in any given year, including odd-numbered ones.

Voter turnout in odd-numbered, non-presidential August primary elections for city office is often half of even-year turnout which is especially impactful because many city offices end up uncontested in the November general election. With the passage of the proposal on Tuesday, council members elected in 2017 will now serve a three-year term and electees in 2018 will serve four-year terms.

The proposal drew grassroots opposition and criticism, both from residents and from other city officials, such as City Councilmember Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4). Critics said the proposal was a self-serving move to reduce the frequency of re-election bids by incumbent council members, thereby reducing accountability and making it harder for independent candidates to mount successful bids for the council.

“To a great extent, the people who will benefit from having four-year terms and running in even years are Democrats,” Eaton said in an October interview with The Michigan Daily.

Downtown Development Authority board member Joan Lowenstein, the treasurer of a ballot committee campaigning for the proposal, attributed the proposal’s success to proponents’ ability to communicate their case to voters.

“The language was right there on the ballot, so people could look at it and figure out whether it made sense for them,” Lowenstein said. “And because it’s logical and saves money and could lead to better voter turnout, I think people just said ‘OK, let’s try it.’ ”

Ann Arbor resident Kathy Griswold, who formed an opposing ballot committee, A2Accountability, said she believes the proposal succeeded because proponents of the measure turned the public discussion to voter turnout and away from other criticism.

Griswold also suggested that Lowenstein primarily supported the term extension to protect City Council members that are friendly to the DDA and likely to raise the limit on taxes the DDA can collect — a charge Lowenstein denied.

“I give Joan Lowenstein a lot of credit because it was a brilliant campaign strategy,” Griswold said. “I don’t believe it was an honest campaign strategy, but that’s politics.”

However,  she noted that she thought four-year council terms could still improve local government accountability if paired with non-partisan primary elections — an idea voted down by City Council in June — by making municipal elections more competitive.

“My goal is to have a non-partisan November election,” Griswold said, adding that the council had rejected adding non-partisan election to the ballot in July. “My goal is to keep working for that; I’m not opposed to four-year non-partisan terms.”