Whether the city’s Charter Review Commission is authorized to set a city-funded special election will likely be decided in court after the group’s request for $37,000 in election funding was denied Tuesday by the City Council.
Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, Accounts Commissioner John Franck and Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco voted no on the budget amendment following an hour-long debate with Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen and Mayor Joanne Yepsen, who voted yes.
“It’s not like they're asking for a trip to Bermuda,” Yepsen said during the discussion, which became heated on several occasions. “It’s something the courts will say, in my opinion, is reasonable.”
She added, “I sure as heck would like to see the $37,000 spent on voters having an opportunity for democracy rather than in court.”
Commission members, appointed by the mayor last June, want the funds to go toward a special election this spring, during which voters would decide on a new charter that would change the city’s form of government from commission to city-manager.
In objecting to the use of funds, council members predicted low voter turnout for the election, which has been set for May 30, the day after Memorial Day Weekend. Madigan also pointed out that it coincided with a Jewish holiday, Shavout, which starts at sundown that day.
All three commissioners who voted no expressed a desire to have the charter vote instead take place during the general election in November. They also stressed that the document to be voted on hasn't been completed; review group members said last week they are closing in on a final draft.
“I think we will have low voter turnout,” Madigan said. “The issue of voters not being smart enough to turn over the ballot? That doesn’t fly with me either.”
“This is voter suppression,” said Scirocco, who said “triple nay” when he eventually cast his vote. “I don’t care what anybody says.”
“Including this on the ballot in November is going to muddle the issue,” Mathiesen countered.
Review group member Barbara Thomas said the group has a “really robust plan for getting the word out,” which would include a public forum scheduled for March 29 at the library.
“We are concerned that if we were to move the referendum on the charter to the fall that it would be much more difficult to get all the free media attention,” she said.
Bob Turner, the commission’s chairman, said the group had determined how to reduce the election’s cost by $9,500 and also identified a grant for up to $25,000 the city could seek to offset the costs of the review group’s work.
“I think if you put those two numbers together, you’ll be impressed,” he said. “We’ve also heard concerns about the May 30th date, and we are looking at another date in early June to see if that’s feasible.”
Turner pointed to state Municipal Home Rule Law 36, saying it gives the group authority to call a special election funded by the city and that after 45 days, the city must provide the necessary funds.
“I think the law is quite clear,” he said after the vote.
The council voted unanimously to fund the group's request for $46,000 for operational expenses, which breaks down to $20,000 for legal consulting fees, $20,000 for community education and outreach and $6,000 for a clerk.