Referendum would change Gainesville elections to fall of odd years

Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 12:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 12:35 p.m.

In addition to the races for mayor and District 4 city commissioner, a referendum to change Gainesville's election schedule goes to voters this month.

At committee and City Commission meetings through much of 2012, commissioners debated the possibility of moving away from annual elections in the spring.

The discussion started with an effort to increase voter turnout percentages that typically hover in the teens by moving city elections to coincide with the primary and general elections for county, state and federal offices.

But it then morphed into something different.

The proposed changes to the city charter that are headed to voters would move elections to the fall of odd years, with the regular election in October and a run-off in November. With elections now coming every other year, terms would be extended from three to four years.

Should voters approve the changes, a phased transition plan would begin in 2014, with fall elections to four-year terms eventually coming in 2017.

Commissioner Lauren Poe described the move to fall in odd years as a "compromise" between the current annual spring schedule and coinciding with county, state and federal races.

Poe said city candidates and issues could struggle for attention in a general election year and noted that the municipal election would end up at the bottom of a "loaded ballot."

Poe also said the proposed change could address the voter fatigue that comes with annual elections or when a city election comes in the spring after a major statewide or federal election cycle.

Moving elections to every other year would bring a cost savings. Clerk of the Commission Kurt Lannon said the city spends in the range of $200,000 annually on elections.

Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said the conversation began with a focus on boosting voter turnout, and he does not see that happening under the changes headed to voters.

"I don't think it's an improvement," he said. "I don't see us getting better turnout under this."

In December, Hawkins cast the lone vote against the first reading of the ordinance to move ahead with the referendum.

Commissioner Susan Bottcher was absent at the Jan. 3 meeting when the ordinance came back for a second reading. With a four-fifths vote required to put a charter amendment on the ballot, Hawkins joined in the unanimous vote to move ahead because the other commissioners supported the measure.

"There are certainly things I would fight against to the bitter end," he said. "This is not it."

Back in September, the discussion still focused on moving to coincide with county, state and federal races when the City Commission held a lightly attended town hall-style meeting to solicit public input. That night, several speakers expressed concerns that changing to the county, state and federal cycle would leave city candidates fighting for attention on the campaign trail and the ballot.

Supervisor of Elections Pam Carpenter also raised several complications.

She questioned if the move would boost turnout because the city's regular election would fall on a primary day, when turnout usually hovers around 25 to 30 percent. A run-off would be on general election day.

Carpenter said a move to even-year elections also would increase the burden on her office when it is at its busiest and questioned if it would still be able to run city elections.

Gainesville is eyeing a move from spring to fall as several other municipalities discuss the potential of establishing a spring municipal election day. Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper said those talks are ongoing at the Alachua County League of Cities and that nothing has been decided.

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