Roanoke City Council’s five Democrats held together and voted Monday to move city council elections from May to November in even-numbered years.
The 5-2 vote came after a lengthy public hearing with 22 speakers and some legislative maneuvering by Councilman Bill Bestpitch that failed. He and Councilwoman Michelle Davis cast the dissenting votes.
It was the fourth public discussion of the move in four consecutive council meetings, though this time a majority of speakers objected to the move, many calling to move the elections to November in odd-numbered years.
Many of them called for the matter to be put to a referendum, and several raised concerns that the move would extend council members’ terms by six months, which they said seemed self-serving.
Some council Democrats bristled at that suggestion.
Councilwoman Trish White-Boyd calculated she makes about $6.25 an hour for her council service.
“I’m hardly doing this to extend my term and it’s not for self-gratification,” she said.
“This council is anything but self-serving,” councilwoman Anita Price added.
Price, however, lamented the process that a few weeks ago led Bestpitch and Davis to accuse council Democrats of orchestrating a vote on the election change when none was scheduled.
“What happened a couple of weeks ago was very painful,” she said. “The process itself has not been one that had been inclusive.”
Council’s public discussion of the move began Oct. 10, when City Attorney Dan Callaghan, at council’s request, briefed the council on the implications of the change and suggested a move to odd-numbered years — paired with state elections — would be preferable if council wanted to make a change. Callaghan also recommended waiting until after the planned May 2020 election.
Council elections currently occur in May of even-numbered years, with three council members elected in one cycle, and three other members and the mayor elected in another cycle. Terms are four years and all members are elected at large.
Further discussion of the move was added to the Oct. 21 agenda, with no indication of a vote. But during the meeting White-Boyd moved that council ask Callaghan to prepare an ordinance to move elections to November in even-numbered years, paired with federal elections.
The council’s five Democrats, cheered on by Democrats in the crowd, banded together to approve White-Boyd’s motion. Independents Bestpitch and Davis opposed the measure.
That move set the matter for a vote on Nov. 4, but at the urging of Callaghan, members instead agreed to host a formal public hearing followed by a vote on Nov. 18.
Monday’s hearing brought out more opponents than had been heard to date, with proponents continuing to argue that pairing council elections with high-turnout federal ballots will maximize voter participation. Others raised concerns that local issues and candidates will get lost in the noise of national elections.
Many speakers called for a referendum.
“It seems prudent to be able to separate yourself from this importance decision,” Rick James of the Business Leadership Fund said. Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce representatives argued the same.
Peg McGuire said the process, however benign, looked partisan and smelled of “collusion.”
“If we want Roanoke to shine we need to do better and be better than what this mess looks like,” she said.
Mark Lazar, a local Democratic activist, boiled it all down to voter turnout.
“Do we want to be known for the highest participation or the lowest?” he asked.
Councilwoman Djuna Osborne agreed, saying council must do what it can to eliminate the one barrier it can remove to aid turnout.
“I trust that when we can eliminate that one barrier, we can educate and inform the voters about the issues,” she said.
Davis praised council for hosting a public hearing, but said, “A public hearing is a tool we can use to gather public input ... not a direct connection to the people’s will.”
She supports November elections, she said, but couldn’t support even-numbered years.
Bestpitch returned to the process by which the issue was raised, which, despite coming after the issue popping up over the years, is viewed by many as rushed and partisan.
“I think we truly jeopardize our credibility as a council” with a vote, he argued.
Bestpitch moved to table the issue for further study and also moved to push elections to November in odd-numbered years.
Both measures were voted down by the Democrats before they finally put the move to November in even-numbered years to a vote, the result of which triggered raucous cheering in the council chamber.
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