An Election Move?
When Duval County voters go to the polls in November, those of you who do, you’ll be asked to vote on whether city elections should be moved from March of 2011 to November of 2011 … extending the terms of the city council, Mayor, Sheriff, and other constitutional officers by six months. The Jacksonville City Council voted last Tuesday 11-4 to place the referendum on the ballot.
Moving local elections has been a topic of discussion almost since consolidation back in the ‘60’s. But more recently, with the city budget stretched to what some say is a breaking point, the argument of saving $3 million by combining local races with a Presidential or Gubernatorial cycle has become more prominent.
This referendum does not do that.
The ballot measure that came out of the city council Tuesday pushes the local elections six months down the road, keeping them separate, costing the same amount of money, and extending the terms of existing office-holders by half a year. If approved by the voters, the new Mayor and City Council will take office in January of 2012.
Proponents of the change as it was voted out of the council say the benefits are two-fold. With all the recent attention paid to the city budget, the new mayor and city council will have a full six months to craft a budget before it has to be passed at the end of June. I recall an interview with Mayor Peyton shortly after winning his first term in office in which he expressed a great deal of concern about having about two weeks to create a budget before it had to go to the council. So in that, yes, there would be more time to put together a budget. The other plus, say those in favor of separate elections, is that local issues and candidates get lost in the cacophony of a state or national election. The feeling is that voters will be better informed about local issues and candidates if that’s all there is on which to concentrate. And there is validity to that argument as well. Fundraising is also an issue, but with the perpetual nature of political fundraising these days, that’s maybe not so much of a factor as some might think.
On the other side of the ledger is the camp that would like to save some $750,000 per year, or about $3 million over a four-year cycle, to match up the city elections with a fall presidential or gubernatorial cycle. The overall effect would be the same … the new elected officials would have more time to work on the budget. But with the first opportunity for a referendum being November of this year, that would push the next city election all the way to November 2012, extending the terms of the current elected officials by a full year. Another option would be to defer the change so that it would not go into effect until after another election cycle, which would not extend the current terms but would also not solve the “first budget” problem for another five years.
And that is one of the finer points that’s not often discussed. The problem of having only a short time to get a budget together only occurs only once every four budget cycles, and given that incumbents often win re-election, it could be argued that it’s really only one in eight budgets … or a fraction over 12 percent of the time. Is that sufficient reason to shift the local elections? For the sake of budgeting consistency, it probably should at least be a consideration.
There are strong arguments to be made both for coordinating local elections with another cycle or holding them separate. As one who has long argued that local elections are vitally important to local communities, it seems that the opportunity to parse local issues without the potential distraction of a higher-profile race makes sense. And, as someone who has in the not-too-distant past been responsible for making decisions about how to cover political races, I know the natural instinct is to give more weight to a state-wide or national race, particularly when deciding who to try to interview … who you want to “get” for a program, or who’ll get the most column-inches in the “A” section.
If we want to have a brighter spotlight on local issues and candidates, then it seems reasonable to remove the obstacles that create the shadows.
So, as difficult as it might be to argue against saving the money, the question also has to be asked “is it worth it?”
Part of deciding what kind of city Jacksonville wants to be should also include what kind of priority should be given to local elections. If we decide to make that a priority and spend the money, it’s incumbent on those we elect to be sure our money was well spent.