Council Hammers Out Changing City Election Cycle

Lining up local elections to coincide with State and National counts would require a vote to change the City’s Charter

Published : Monday, October 30, 2017 | 5:15 AM

City Hall Ballot

Following an informal poll at its October 16 meeting in which five of the City’s eight Councilmembers agreed to comply with the recently passed California Voter Participation Rights Act, the Council is expected to decide Monday on various specific options to move the City’s elections cycle from March and April of odd years to coincide with statewide elections, which are held in even years.

Changes agreed upon by the City Council will be presented to the Pasadena electorate in a ballot measure. Doing do will change the City’s charter — its “constitution” — a move which has not occurred since 1999.

“We believe that we have to increase voter turnout,” said Dorothy Keane, president of the League of Women Voters Pasadena Area, “and if this is a vehicle for doing that, then we would be in favor of it.”

Currently, the City’s Primary and General elections occur in March and April of odd years for the offices of Mayor and members of the City Council. Winning candidates must receive a 50%+1 majority in a race to be elected. Should a winner not be declared in a March Primary election, a runoff election is held in April for the top two candidates.

The Council will now choose from a series of options to enable conformance with Voter Participation Rights Act, each of which would involve extending the terms of all current office holders in order to “synchronize” with the terms of State officeholders..

The first option is to continue to utilize a Primary and General election format for the offices of Mayor and City Council, in which the odd-year March Primary election is consolidated with the statewide even-year March Primary election, and the City odd-year April General election would be consolidated with the statewide even-year November General election.

In such an option, all successful candidates must receive a 50%+1 majority in either the Primary election or the statewide November General election, and current terms for the Mayor and City Council would be extended by as many as 20 months in order to line up with the transition to the statewide election cycle.

In the second option, the City would utilize plurality voting for mayoral and City Council district elections, where a successful candidate must receive the highest number of votes cast for that race at a single election; determine if Mayoral and City Council district elections should consolidate with, and occur on, statewide Primary election dates or on statewide General election dates. As with the first option, current terms for the Mayor and City Council would be extended by as many as 20 months to line up with the statewide election cycle.

In a third option, the primary and general election format for Mayoral elections would require a 50% + 1 majority to be elected, and Council elections would be plurality. The City’s March odd-year primary election held would is moved to coincide with the statewide March Primary election held in even years. The odd-year City April General election would coincide with statewide November General election held in even years. In this scenario, the Council would need to determine if the City Council District elections should consolidate with and occur on statewide Primary dates or on statewide General dates; and current terms for the Mayor and City Council would also be extended by as many as 20 months to facilitate the one-time transition to the statewide election cycle.

Should Pasadena elections eventually coincide with state and national elections, a State Senate bill, sponsored by State Senator Anthony Portantino, would switch the order of precedence on the ballot, so that cities and local races would appear at the top of local ballots, according to Pasadena City Clerk Mark Jomsky.

“So it would go, city races and measures, then school district races and measures, then county races and measures, and then state and federal races and measures,” Jomsky explained.

That bill is still moving through the State Legislature.

Mayor Terry Tornek, while acknowledging their popularity, explained the problem plurality elections could present.

“It’s easier,” he commented, “but the problem is, if you had six candidates running for one of the district offices or for Mayor, one of them could get elected with 29% of the vote. If all the votes get split up, six ways or eight ways or however many ways, then whoever gets the most wins, even if it’s not 50%. So now you got somebody who got elected with 30% or less of the votes, at least theoretically. I don’t know that that would happen, but it could happen.”

“And then,” he continued, “People say, ‘Well, this person doesn’t really exactly have a mandate if only a third of the people voted for him or her.”

Tornek noted at the same time, that a vast majority of cities in California have plurality voting.

Tornek also lamented the fact that each of the proposed options extends the terms of the current office holders, which might be awkward.

“That’s another problem,” he said, “It makes it look like the people that are currently in office are doing a self-serving thing, in terms of extending their term. Frankly, I would prefer on a personal level, to run in March of 2019 on the local schedule, rather than in March of 2020 and be buried in the state-wide election.”

“I’m not excited about it, honestly,” Tornek said.

Political observers seem to recognize the importance of the moment.

“Obviously it changes things quite a bit,” said political consultant Parke Skelton, of SG&A Campaigns, Pasadena-based political consulting firm.

“In LA, for example, they have municipal elections with 15% turnout in the last mayor’s race, I don’t think the turnout was over 20%. Now, the turnout will dramatically increase, but it may wind up that a bunch of people are voting who really haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about local issues.

“They’re voting on a presidential race,” Skelton continued, “they’re voting in high-profile ballot measure campaigns, and then the city race is found at the bottom of the ballot, and it’s kind of an afterthought for a lot of people. Also, it would tend to make campaigns more expensive as well, which is good for business, I guess. But the electorate you have to reach is dramatically larger, so that means you need to spend more money.”

Concluded Mayor Tornek, “None of these (options) are great. We don’t have any happy choices here. We just have a series of less bad choices. Which is, among these bad choices, which is the best one?”

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