Ballot proposal to extend City Council terms draws opposition

Thursday, October 13, 2016 - 6:54pm

Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2) listens to speakers during an Ann Arbor city council meeting on September 6, 2016.

Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2) listens to speakers during an Ann Arbor city council meeting on September 6, 2016. Buy this photo
Carolyn Gearig/Daily

 

A ballot proposal seeking to extend the term of office for Ann Arbor city officials by two years has drawn pushback from some residents and City Council members who believe this will be a self-serving convenience for incumbents, decrease constituent accountability and impede independent candidates running for city office.

Fundamentally, the divide is between two visions of an ideal city electorate: those who see maximization of voter turnout as ideal, and those who prefer a smaller electorate that is more vested in local issues. 

The proposal was placed on the November ballot by a 7-4 City Council vote in July. In the same meeting, a parallel ballot proposal pushing for non-partisan local elections was defeated 7-4.

Backers of the resolution, such as City Councilmember Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2), who co-sponsered the proposal, argued that lengthening councilmembers’ terms and staggering elections onto even-numbered years would improve voter turnout in city elections because top-ticket races — like presidential campaigns — would drive more voters to the polls and therefore improve local governance.

Currently, 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. Because there are no high-profile top-ticket races in odd-numbered years, voter turnout in August primary elections for city office — which tend to be decisive because of Democratic dominance in Ann Arbor — is often half of even-year turnout, and many city offices end up uncontested on the November ballot.

“The people of Ann Arbor generally are very concerned about voting rights and franchisement,” Westphal said. “And our odd year council elections have been such a long-running joke, I decided to do something about it.”

If the proposal is passed, the term extension will be gradually phased in, with all City Council members elected in 2017 holding three-year terms and all councilmember-elects in 2018 holding four-year terms.

However, opponents — like City Councilmember Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4) — argue the proposed term extensions will mean city officials will be less accountable to public opinion without the threat of bi-annual re-election and it will be more difficult for independent candidates to mount challenges to incumbents. Of the 11 incumbent City Council members defeated by challengers since 2001, seven were ousted in odd-year elections.

“To a great extent, the people who will benefit from having four-year terms and running in even years are Democrats,” Eaton said, pointing out that Ann Arbor voters in presidential and midterm election years are more likely to vote straight-ticket Democratic on city races because the top-ballot would dilute local issues.

As the only non-Democrat on the council, Jane Lumm (I–Ward 2) called the ballot proposal advanced by her colleagues “self-serving” and echoed Eaton in arguing that it would merely decrease accountability in city government and make it more difficult for independent candidates like herself to mount successful campaigns.

Since 2011, Lumm has defeated Democratic candidates for the council during odd-numbered years — including Westphal in 2013 — for three consecutive elections.

“Would I prefer to run for re-election once every four years?” Lumm asked. “Sure … it’s less work, less effort, you don’t need to go out and meet with people and be evaluated publicly. When you run for re-election, you go out and knock on lots and lots of doors, and it’s important we do that. Nothing replaces that … because these are folks you otherwise don’t meet.”

Lumm also charged that the ballot proposal wouldn’t improve voter engagement in local elections without a switch to non-partisan municipal elections, because the winner of the August Democratic primary election would always be overwhelmingly favored to win in November due to Ann Arbor’s political composition. There has not been a Republican on city council since 2005.

“These elections are still decided in low-turnout August primaries,” Lumm said. “So what if you have a bazillion people show up in November? It’s meaningless.”

While Westphal disagreed with Lumm and Eaton on the importance of voter turnout, he agreed that local election reform wouldn’t be complete without non-partisan elections that would reduce the decisiveness of the August primary. He expressed hope that such a proposal can be passed in the future on top of four-year terms.

In addition to some city officials, grassroots opposition has also materialized against the ballot proposal. Several residents led by Ann Arbor resident Kathy Griswold have established the independent ballot committee A2Accountability to campaign against the proposal, and David Silkworth — an independent candidate challenging Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski (D–Ward 5) in November — has made opposition to term extensions part of his platform.

Meanwhile, some proponents of the term extension have used more charged rhetoric in advocating for the ballot proposal. Former Councilmember Joan Lowenstein — who is treasurer of Citizens for Better Turnout, a ballot committee supporting the term-extension ballot proposal — compared opposition to the ballot measure to voter suppression, arguing that Ann Arbor’s government would be more accountable with a broadened electorate.

The ballot committee's website cites election turnout among Black voters in Ferguson, Mo., noting it is is one-third that of white voters in odd-year municipal elections, leading to an unrepresentative city government.

“We live in this age where you have all this voter suppression, with Republicans making it harder for people to vote,” Lowenstein said. “As Democrats in Ann Arbor, we’re trying to fight back and have real election reform to have more people to vote.”

Lowenstein also said four-year terms would protect the council members from small numbers of single-issue voters and allow them to take principled but unpopular stands on issues such as the development of student housing.

“If someone wants to take a principled vote ... they have to worry about a challenger,” Lowenstein said, adding that with a longer term City Council members would have more time to defend their records to their constituents.