NORTH LIBERTY– There won’t be a special election in North Liberty August 2, but one is coming eventually.
Its date is yet to be determined.
A petition was filed with the City of North Liberty on May 10 calling for a vote to change the method in which North Liberty city councilors are elected. The petition seeks to have one council member elected from each of five equal-population wards.
Currently, all five council members are elected at-large and represent the entire city, regardless of their addresses.
Because the petition was deemed valid, containing the proper number of eligible signators, Iowa law says the city must hold a vote on the measure.
It does not, however, specify when.
The State of Iowa recently changed the opportunities for cities to hold special elections, limiting them to just four pre-determined days each year, or voting on special ballot measures during their regular municipal elections.
The next designated date for city special elections is Aug. 2, and the earliest possible date North Liberty could put the ward question to its voters.
The North Liberty City Council met last Thursday, June 16, to vote on the Aug. 2 date. It was unanimously voted down, 4-0, with council member Chris Hoffman absent.
Council member Brian Wayson said he could not support the Aug. 2 date because he was not convinced a ward system is a good idea for North Liberty at this time.
“The proposed map adds a level of complexity in the council that is not necessary,” said Wayson, referring to a draft map of potential wards printed on the front of the petition, “and it potentially excludes good (council) candidates based on where they live.”
In addition, if the ward system vote were to be held Aug. 2, and it passed, there would be only 27 days for potential council candidates to file paperwork in order to run in November. Wayson and council member Coleen Chipman were both concerned about such a tight timeline.
Chipman also cited the cost of a special election– which could run $6,000 to $8,000, according to City Administrator Ryan Heiar– as a consideration.
“While I know that may not seem like a whole lot, it is a concern of mine that we incur the extra cost of that,” said Chipman. If held it during the general election, there would be no extra cost.
North Liberty has to create new voting precincts by Sept. 1 because of its population growth, regardless of what happens with the ward system vote. If the measure passes, the wards could be drawn up differently than the precincts.
City council member Gerry Kuhl said he was concerned about one ward growing much faster than another, creating unequal representation between councilors. Kuhl advocated for the city to instead consider a charter commission similar to Cedar Rapid’s, looking to their model of government for guidance.
“I want to get this city government stabilized. We could involve some real experts in this process,” Kuhl said, “and we can get a better end product by taking longer and looking at what we could accomplish.”
Audience member Ken Madole, who presented the petition to the council in May, addressed the council during public comment.
“This is not (a petition for) a change in form of government,” Madole reiterated. “It just changes in the representation of government. According to law, that’s quite a big difference. We need to take a look at what’s at hand at this time and decide what we’re going to do with this.”
Kuhl asked Madole if the petitioners would consider withdrawing their ward petition if the city took the time to consider and craft a charter commission.
“I can’t speak for all the people who signed that petition,” Madole replied. “This is the petition at hand, and this is what we have to deal with, one way or the other.”
Council member Terry Donahue, who connected to the meeting via telephone, said he was not in favor of holding the vote in August simply because it was too soon to properly organize an election.
“Irrespective of the cost, or what one’s personal position may be, there are too many things that could possibly go wrong,” said Donahue. “I think for this to proceed correctly and above board, we need to go with the Nov. 8 date.”
City Attorney Scott Peterson told the council his recommendation would also be to hold the vote during the city’s regular election of Nov. 8, 2011, in order to give him time to research all the unknowns surrounding the process and answer all of council’s questions. The city does have the option of waiting until the next special election date in March 2012, but Peterson said he would not recommend it.
“I would not be in favor of delaying this (vote) any longer than Nov. 8,” said Chipman. “People have brought forward a petition, and we need to act on it as soon as we can.”
Mayor Tom Salm said the next resolution to appear on an upcoming council agenda would be to hold the election during the regular municipal election of Nov. 8.
Peterson said he did not know how soon it would come back before the council, but the decision to pass on Aug. 2 has given them more time.
“I just don’t feel we’ve sorted things out to the point we need to,” said Peterson. “One of the concerns as a general matter is we don’t have the precise information to the questions the council has asked to the extend we’d like to. There is a provision I ran across since the meeting Tuesday night we are looking at where a measure is brought forward, it is possible for competing systems to be on the same ballot measure in the discretion of council. That’s something we want to look at.”