Charter changes could be next Council’s most important task

In the flurry of activity surrounding the election of the next Mayor and Council, the advisory questions concerning changes to our charter that are up for a vote are getting lost in the shuffle.  I wanted to take a few minutes to discuss them.

Rockville’s Mayor and Council created a Charter Review Commission last year to recommend possible changes to the City’s governing document.  The Commission returned with three strong recommendations, all of which are going to be on the ballot this fall as advisory questions.  The next Mayor and Council will consider the citizen input on these questions, but it is not meant to be the last word.

Changing from odd-year voting to presidential-year voting

 City of Rockville elections are currently held every two years, in odd numbered years. Do you favor moving the City elections to be held every four years to coincide with the Presidential Election?

I think this may be the next Mayor and Council’s most important decision.  Moving our elections would give a large, immediate, and permanent boost to our low voter turnout, a problem that has vexed Rockville for years.  Rockville’s Charter Review Commission strongly recommended this shift, and I do also.

If this fall’s City election is like the last few, about 17 percent of Rockville’s registered voters will show up.  That is far too low.  We’ve been trying to raise our turnout rate for years, without success.

Moving to the Presidential year, when no county or state races crowd the ballot, would dramatically increase Rockville’s voter turnout.  Seventy percent – 70 percent! – of Rockville voters turned out to vote in 2012.  These are people who are our neighbors.  They’re already voters in other races.  We should hear their voices when it comes to City elections.  We’re not doing so now when only 17 percent of us show up.

The group of Rockville voters who show up during the Presidential year is a far more diverse group than those who now show up for City elections.  Shifting our elections to the Presidential year will get us closer to the ideal that Rockville be governed by the consent of the governed.  With 17% turnout in City elections, we are too far from that ideal.

The shift will allow the City to provide early voting, which costs the County hundreds of thousands of dollars and which Rockville could never afford to provide on its own.  The challenges of creating individual ballots given differing City, County, and State political boundaries has already been solved, as County and State boundaries already differ.

Some of my good friends around the City are concerned that the change would mean more partisanship in our elections, and that these new voters would not be as high-quality as the voters we have now.

We do prize our non-partisan elections. But what keeps our non-partisan tradition strong is not the timing of our elections, but the commitment of candidates over the decades to resist the pressures of partisanship.  I see no reason why that commitment would fade if we changed election schedules.

The concern over partisanship stems partially from the federal Hatch Act, which forbids most federal employees from participating in partisan elections.  No one wants our federal workforce to be barred from participating in our elections.

I have looked into this carefully, and do not believe it is a concern.  (Details here.) One candidate picking up partisan endorsements or saying they are running as a Democrat, for example, absolutely does not convert Rockville’s election into a partisan election.   A political party has to nominate or designate a person as its candidate.  The candidate has to work with the party and formally represent the party.  And the Rockville City Code explicitly forbids those representing a political party from running for office in Rockville.

I keep listening, and I am not hearing the mechanism where moving to the Presidential year would increase partisanship in Rockville elections.  Any small risk of increased partisan pressure would be squashed by the Rockville City Code, which explicitly forbids candidates representing political parties from running for office in Rockville.  I am comfortable with the protection that Rockville’s laws provide us here.

As to worries that our new voters wouldn’t be good-enough voters – all I can say is this: By definition, you can’t have higher voter turnout without more voters. Holding City elections on a day when a lot of Rockville voters are already showing up to vote strikes me as a great idea.

I am utterly unpersuaded by the argument that it would cost too much money to campaign if we shifted our elections – for instance, we would have to send out 15,000 postcards rather than 5,000. This is not an argument against moving the elections, it’s an argument against higher voter turnout itself.  Having to raise and spend more money because so many voters are participating in the process is a problem we should dream of having.

The nonpartisan group FairVote studied our charter questions and took a strong stand in favor of moving Rockville’s elections to the presidential year.  (Full report here)

Why do we work so hard to increase voter turnout?  It’s a good thing in and of itself, but it’s really a proxy for increased civic participation – that’s the real goal.  Higher civic participation drives higher voter turnout, but the reverse is also true: If you put a ballot before people to vote in City elections, it will drive them to become more involved civically because they become invested in the life of their community. “I voted for that idiot Moore,” they will say. “I feel responsible. What’s he been doing?”

It’s time to put our money where our mouth is.  Do we want higher voter turnout in this City, or not?  I do.

Changing from 2- to 4-year terms

In the City of Rockville, the term of office for the Mayor and the Councilmembers is currently two years. Do you favor increasing the term from two years to four years?

Moving to a four-year term is essential if we move the elections to the Presidential years. On the other even-year ballot (2014, 2018, etc.), we elect every single state and county office – that ballot is packed, and City races would have trouble standing out.

If the issue is taken on its own, there are good arguments for both four-year terms and two-year terms.  It absolutely would be nice to master the job before having to run for it again.  But I respect the idea that it’s also good to be able to throw the bums out and not have to wait forever to do so.

Personally, though, I am not a big fan of the argument that it turns out that it’s just too hard for officeholders to run every two years.  It’s a fact that tends to be “discovered” by incumbents right around election time.  Two years is the term we signed up for, and we don’t really have the right to complain about it once we’re in the middle of it (and have the advantage of incumbency).

If we do move to four-year terms, and do move to the Presidential election schedule, it doesn’t make any candidate’s life easier for quite some time.  This election in 2013 is for a two-year term, from 2013 to 2015. In order to get us on track for an election in 2016, we would need to elect the following Mayor and Council to a one-year term, from 2015 to 2016.   That’s three elections in four years.   Anyone who votes to support the schedule change and wants to remain in office is voting for a tremendous amount of disruption in their personal lives over the next few years.  Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy knocking on doors and meeting voters.  But I also like seeing my kids.

Increasing from four to six Councilmembers

The City of Rockville is currently governed by a Mayor and four Councilmembers. Do you favor increasing the membership of the Rockville Mayor and Council to a Mayor and six Councilmembers?

I don’t have any particular objection to this proposal, but it seems like a solution in search of a problem.   The Mayor and the four members of the Council are not overwhelmed with constituent matters, or ceremonial duties, or shared legislative duties.

What burns up most of my time on the Council is mastering the issues before us, reading the meeting materials, and working to advance my own legislative proposals.  None of these would be aided by adding more members to the Council.

Other objections to the proposal are that it would cost the City another $40,000 or so a year in councilmember stipends, and that our meetings would go even longer if there were more of us on hand with the desire to flap our gums all night long.   Both are true as far as they go, but they don’t go very far in my opinion.  I believe the City gets pretty good value for its money in Mayor and Council stipends, and the City could easily absorb the extra expense of two more councilmembers.  I also think a Mayor who runs a meeting well could keep a lid on the deliberations of a larger number of members.

The addition of two councilmembers would make it easier to spread out some of our shared duties: serving as liaisons to City Boards and Commissions and serving on regional bodies such as the Council of Governments.  None of us is ever going to do everything everyone would like us to do – I could fill every night of every week with one meeting or another, and I’m confident I could do the same if two members were added to the Council.  I find that the challenges to my ability to attend such meetings do not stem from my having one-fifth of the duties versus one-seventh; they have much more to do with the circumstances of the rest of my life.

If I am fortunate enough to serve on the Council next term, I will watch the advisory vote closely on this issue.  If there is overwhelming sentiment to increase from four to six councilmembers, I will reconsider my lack of enthusiasm for this proposal.