City Commission approves transition plan for election changes


Published: Friday, December 7, 2012 at 2:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 7, 2012 at 2:25 p.m.

The Gainesville City Commission has approved the transition plan for a potential, gradual shift from annual spring elections to fall elections in odd years and from three-year to four-year terms.

A charter amendment on those proposed election-schedule changes will go to city voters in March if commissioners approve an ordinance to schedule the referendum.

The two required votes on that ordinance are expected at the Dec. 20 and Jan. 3 meetings.

Since the proposed changes would go to voters in March, the two offices also on the ballot then — the mayor and the commissioner for District 4 — would maintain the current three-year terms.

The phased transition then would begin in 2014, with elections still in the spring but the length of term for the three offices on the ballot extended to 3 years. In 2015, the two offices on the ballot would have 4-year terms. In 2016, the mayor and district commissioner would be elected to 3-year terms.

Eventually, starting in 2017, elections would move to the fall of odd years, with four-year terms for all offices.

The transition plan is the latest development in almost a year of commission discussion on changing the city’s elections from the current schedule of annual spring elections.

The conversation started with a primary focus on increasing voter turnout percentage, which typically hovers in the teens, and a secondary goal of cutting costs, which often are in the range of $200,000 a year.

Initially, the focus was on moving to even years to follow the primary and general election schedule of county, state and federal offices.

But that raised concerns over city candidates and issues getting lost in the mix of other races and struggling for attention at the bottom of a lengthy ballot. There were questions about whether turnout would receive a boost with a city regular election on the primary date for county, state and federal offices and a run-off, if necessary, on general election day.

Supervisor of Elections Pam Carpenter also raised concerns over the increased workload for her office’s limited staff and whether her office could continue its contractual agreement to run city elections

Now, the plan is to move elections to the fall of odd years with commissioners sworn in at the first meeting in January.

While Commissioner Thomas Hawkins was in the 6-1 majority to approve the transition plan Thursday, he was skeptical about the prospects for boosting voter turnout.

“No one has suggested this plan would increase voter turnout,” Hawkins said. “No data has suggested that. I have no reason to believe fall is worse than spring. I also have no reason to believe fall is better than spring.”

Commissioner Lauren Poe was hopeful for a 5-7 percent boost in turnout from the mere fact that “most people associate elections with the fall.” Poe also said the changes would avoid the voter fatigue that comes when the city election comes a few months after a hotly contested federal election cycle — a scenario looming in March. It would also end the “city burnout” that comes with having commission seats on the ballot every year, Poe said.

Commissioner Todd Chase cast the dissenting vote on the schedule for the transitioning of terms but voted in favor of other parts of the plan, including swearing in commissioners in January. Chase also voted with other commissioners to schedule regular elections on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in October, with a runoff on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, if necessary.

Chase later said he did support the approved plan for transitioning terms over an alternative put before commissioners, which had one commissioner elected to a 2-year term and one elected to a 4-year term in spring 2015.

He said he did have concerns about 2019, when the transition is complete and four of the seven commission seats are on the ballot. He believes that having the District 1 and District 4 seats on the ballot at the same time as the mayor and an at-large seat would hamper the chances for a “moderate” or “conservative” to be elected to the citywide seats.

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