BY KRISSI HUMBARD — At their Dec. 19 meeting, the city council unanimously voted to place an advisory, non-binding referendum question regarding the size of the city council on the ballot for the upcoming 2017 election. Councilmembers Edouard Haba (Ward 4) and Ruth Ann Frazier (Ward 5) were absent.
The referendum question will establish voters’ preferences about the number of councilmembers on the city council. It also seeks input on the number and size of the election wards, the number of councilmembers per ward, and whether there should be any councilmembers elected at-large by all the city’s voters.
“The last time [the council] had a deliberate conversation about size was in 2012,” when the council was discussing options for redistricting, said Mayor Candace Hollingsworth, who sponsored the resolution.
The redistricting options that would have drastically changed the makeup of the council in 2012 did not pass, and the issue was dropped. Hollingsworth said she wanted to bring the issue up again now, instead of waiting four years until the next redistricting, mainly over concerns for staff workload. There are 11 councilmembers fielding constituent issues and requests and emailing them to the small city staff, she said, adding that there are currently more councilmembers than senior-level staff.
“One of the things I’ve been most interested in is making government function a little bit better,” Hollingsworth said. Since becoming mayor, she said, she can see how the number of councilmembers impacts staff function.
The mayor said she decided to ask for a referendum to “put something to residents, since they’re the ones who are most impacted by the size of the council, aside from staff, so we can get input from residents.”
The council discussed the item of council size on Sept. 19, Oct. 17 and Nov. 7, 2016. The city attorney was authorized by the council on Nov. 7 to draft a resolution based on those discussions. The final version of the ballot question was presented Dec. 19.
“The phrasing of each of the options was changed to make it a little bit simpler and easier to understand for those in the booth,” Hollingsworth said.
The city charter currently states that the city council shall be composed of a mayor elected at-large by the city voters and 10 councilmembers — two elected by voters residing within each of the city’s five wards.
Three questions regarding the size of the city council will appear on the ballot.
The first, a “yes” or “no” question, asks voters whether the size of the council should be reduced.
The second question on the ballot will ask voters to indicate “yes” or “no” to four options on how the council’s size could be reduced. The first option would keep five wards but have only one councilmember per ward; the second would reduce both the number of wards and councilmembers representing each ward; the third aims to increase the number of wards but reduce the number of councilmembers per ward; and the fourth option reduces the number of wards but leaves two councilmembers representing each ward.
The third, also a “yes” or “no” question, asks whether there should be one or more councilmembers elected at-large by city voters.
According to council documents, if the results of the ballot question confirm “majority support” for changes, the council would convene a resident committee to work with the city staff. Their goal would be to develop and implement plans to incorporate the changes.
As for what Hollingsworth said she hopes the referendum will find: “I hope that residents agree that the [council] size is too large.”