Asheville City Council member Brownie Newman says that, whichever way the referendum petition count falls, the public outcry over partisan elections has taught him something: “I’ve been persuaded that there is enough public concern and interest that we should talk about it more,” Newman told Xpress today.
Toward that end, the Council member who proposed the voting change — from nonpartisan to partisan elections — is making another suggestion: a citizens’ commission on public elections.
In an e-mail to fellow Council members and the mayor, Newman calls for an ad-hoc group of citizens who would consider changes to Asheville’s voting process. Alongside the partisan question, he points to other considerations like the possibility of instant-runoff elections, campaign-finance reform and the method for appointing a Council member to a vacant seat, such as when Council member Bryan Freeborn was appointed in 2005.
Newman also said the effect of partisan elections on third-party candidates should be examined, and that this factor may sway his opinion on the issue. “I’m not convinced that it does exclude people, but the perception is there,” he told Xpress. “If there’s not a way to fix it, I will not support continuing with this change.”
The proposal is not yet scheduled for deliberation, but an e-mail from Council member Carl Mumpower says the issue should wait until after the election in November, and some critics are charging that the proposal is an attempt to mend fences with the voting public in the runup to Newman’s reelection bid.
Newman’s proposal and Mumpower’s response are reproduced verbatim below.
— Brian Postelle, staff writer
July 23, 2006
Dear Mayor and Members of Council,
I have been thinking a great deal about the question of how we structure our local elections over the past several weeks. While I still believe that the political parties have a constructive role to play in local elections and that there are some significant downsides in our so-called “nonpartisan” structured elections, I have been persuaded that we need some type of community process to discuss what are the best ways to structure our municipal elections in Asheville.
To that end, I would like to propose the creation of a citizens commission on local elections to explore the pros and cons of several different ways that our municipal elections could be structured and carried out, and to make recommendations to City Council on these matters. Questions that I think it could be helpful to have a citizens commission consider include the following:
• What are the pros and cons of including and excluding the political parties from municipal elections?
• Do existing state laws discourage participation by candidates from smaller political parties of from unaffiliated candidates? If yes, what can be done to change those standards? Can the Asheville charter be changed to lower or eliminate barriers to third party or unaffiliated candidates?
• Does our community want to see some form of campaign finance reform, such as public financing, at the local level?
• Has Asheville grown to the point where the community would be better served by a combination of at-large and district elections, rather than all at-large elections? What are the pros and cons of having some district elections?
• North Carolina has granted authority to cities to utilize Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) for local elections. What are the pros and cons of Instant Runoff Voting? Are there other forms of voting reforms that should be considered for Asheville?
• Over the past five years, there have been two vacancies on City Council, both created when a sitting member of Council was elected Mayor? Should Asheville’s charter be amended to require that the next highest vote getter be automatically appointed to Council?
If Council supports the idea of a citizens commission on local elections, it should have a diversity of perspectives to assure healthy discussion and exploration of issues. If a majority of Council believes a citizens commission would be helpful, I would support moving forward with its creation. If the commission develops any recommendations that require support from our state legislators, it would be beneficial to have those recommendations developed in time for consideration during the 2008 session of the Legislature.
If I had known how much interest the question of what role political parties should play in municipal elections would spark, I would have supported the creation of a citizens commission on the front end of this process.
Thank you for your consideration of this proposal.
Asheville City Councilman
I would be very supportive of either detailed Council discussion on this matter or further study, if it proves necessary, at our first post election meeting in December. Until that time any attempts on our part to back track on recent actions by the majority would be widely viewed as a late and a transparent exercise in self service.
Asheville City Council