Non-partisan elections and the Ypsi City Charter

    Ypsilanti, as most of you probably know, has partisan City Council elections, which means that, in the primaries, Democrats run against Democrats, and Republicans run against Republicans. Well, come Election Day, Ypsilantians will be voting to amend the City Charter, and change that. The following analysis comes from our friend Richard Murphy, the former City Planner of Ypsilanti.

    On this November’s ballot, City of Ypsilanti voters will be asked if we should approve a revised City Charter. The Charter is effectively the city’s constitution, which governs how the city should be run, and can only be changed by the voters. The proposed revision appears here. (A version which shows the edits can be found here.) There’s been a lot wrong with the Charter Commission’s process, but at least one of the proposed revisions is appealing: changing City Council elections to a non-partisan system.

    Ypsilanti is one of only three cities in the entire state that has partisan Mayor and City Council elections–the others are Ann Arbor and Ionia, and I know at least Ann Arbor to suffer from some of the same problems that Ypsi does. Because both cities reliably vote overwhelmingly Democratic in November, the partisan ballot effectively moves the entire local election to the August Democratic primary, forcing all candidates to run as Democrats to be viable, regardless of their actual beliefs. (Next month’s ballot includes exactly 1 candidate in each of our three City Council Wards. In Ann Arbor, similarly, 4 of the 5 council races are uncontested.)

    First, a partisan ballot disqualifies a pool of people whom I’d otherwise consider highly qualified candidates. The Federal Hatch Act of 1939 bars various public employees from running for partisan office if they are responsible for administering Federal funding, or in some cases if their positions are paid for at all by Federal funds. In 2010, Ypsi Ward 2 Council candidate Claudia Pettit had to withdraw from the race due to the Hatch Act, and there have been several other recent cases in Washtenaw County.

    Ypsi has a surprising concentration of residents who are County or State employees, and who would make excellent Councilmembers. By retaining partisan elections, though, we’re effectively saying that we don’t want Councilmembers who have backgrounds in public safety, economic development, public finance, public health–if you work in one of those fields at any level, chances are your position is partially Federally funded.

    Second, the fact that the election that matters is held in August effectively disenfranchises voters. In 2010, about 2,000 Ypsilanti voters turned out for the August Democratic primary; about 4,500 turned out for the November election–a simple calendar change there would have doubled the number of votes cast for City Council. Additionally, choosing our Mayor and Council through the August Democratic primary means that anyone who wants to vote in the Republican primary doesn’t get a voice on the local elections, because they are only allowed to vote one side of the August ballot. This is a case where local Democrats should probably be supporting moving the local election that matters to November: if we’re going to get bent out of shape for things like asking voters to check a box declaring that they’re not breaking the law, because that offers too much of a barrier to voting, isn’t it pretty ridiculous to maintain a local election calendar that halves the number of voters who get to participate? (Yes, I would love if all qualified voters came out to vote in August, and February, and May, but removing artificial barriers to ballot access is better than blaming the victims.)

    Finally, I’d like to see our local elections go non-partisan simply because today’s party identifiers don’t mean a whole lot at the local level, and only serve to obscure discussion about candidate’s actual positions and qualifications. Are we expecting our City Council to vote on closing Guantanamo, or decide the DREAM Act, or authorize remote drone strikes, or consider national health care reform? What’s the Republican position on a fire department of only full-time staff vs. a hybrid full-time/on-call system? What’s the Democratic position on whether the parking ratios in the Zoning Ordinance are accurate? Do we really want voters in November picking our city council based on whether or not they have the same letter after their name as the President? Especially when the Democratic identifier on Ypsi’s local ballot has become so meaningless, because any serious candidate in recent years runs as a Democrat, regardless of their actual beliefs?

    This summer’s screaming match about whether Mike Eller was a “real Democrat” is a great demonstration of the problem. Eller ran as an Independent in Nov 2008 and got beat hard, so ran in the Democratic primary this summer to take advantage of voter presumption. Both online and in person, his supporters attempted to deflect any criticism by hiding behind the party label. They asserted, in effect, that the only things that mattered were the campaign’s talking points–beyond that, the “D” after his name should tell you everything you need to know. The opposition had to break down that shield of party identification in order to actually talk about his beliefs. (I did enjoy when the conversation took a turn for the surreal, with Eller supporters arguing that Councilman Murdock was similarly a sham because he had been part of the Human Rights Party in the ‘70s, as if “he’s for human rights” is an effective attack…)

    I’ve been told that Eller disproves my point: that it was “only because he was tied to his past party affiliation that he could be beat” this summer, and therefore the party labels are important. Not true — Eller’s past affiliation with the America First Party was at the state level, even as he ran as an Independent in Ypsi. Even if we had been running a non-partisan election in 2008, Eller would have still had exactly the same affiliation with AFP to reference this time around. It’s the beliefs he stated then, and his refusal to disavow them this year, that made the difference in every conversation I had with my neighbors, not whether or not he was a “real Democrat”.

    And, sure, folks like Rodney Nanney are backing the non-partisan elections bit, which is always a good litmus test: is this really just a ploy to flood the council with conservatives by allowing them to leave behind the baggage of party identification? Again, the number of (what I consider) conservatives that we see run as Democrats seems adequate proof that they’re unafraid of sheep’s clothing, and the current system provides no protection against closet Republicans. (Besides, if you think Rodney’s support is a good litmus test, you’ll still have that yardstick to measure candidates in a non-partisan election.)

    The proposal, a jungle primary in August with the top two candidates advancing to November, does have one major flaw: currently, our Mayor and Council elections are mercifully short, effectively ending with the August primary every year. Considering the intensity we all bring to every contested election around here, I’m not sure anyone would survive a campaign that lasted all the way to November. So here’s my proposal: if you want to vote against the Charter, but like the idea of removing artificial barriers for both candidates and voters with a non-partisan election, we can bring a petition next year to amend the charter to provide a November, non-partisan, instant runoff voting system for our local offices.

    update: Our Mayor has now weighed in. The following comment was left by Paul Schreiber in the comments section earlier today.

    Murph makes a good point about the Hatch Act, but I will be voting against the proposed Ypsilanti city charter for two reasons. One, party affiliation quickly communicates positions on issues to voters. For example, the 22nd circuit court electon is non-partisan. Jim Fink and Carol Kuhnke are running for this position. One is a staunch conservative and the other is a progressive liberal. Knowing party affilition for this race informs voters better than any other piece of information. I’m not saying that judicial elections should be partisan. I am saying that legislative elections like city council should be partisan.

    Secondly, the proposed charter has no automatic review by a vote of the people every 16 years. The current charter passed in 1994 has that. That’s why 16 years later, in 2010, voters approved convening a charter commission to consider a new charter. The charter commission eliminated this review vote in the proposed charter, so the new charter would last indefinitely until city council took action or a citizen petition was filed. I think all charters should have a periodic review by the voters.

    update: Saying, “I would like to dispel at least one myth right up front: the non-partisan proposal does not represent a right wing conspiracy to take over the city,” Charter Commission member Bob Doyle has also weighed in. His comments, in their entirety, can be found here.

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      18 Comments

      1. Paul Schreiber
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

        Murph makes a good point about the Hatch Act, but I will be voting against the proposed Ypsilanti city charter for two reasons. One, party affiliation quickly communicates positions on issues to voters. For example, the 22nd circuit court electon is non-partisan. Jim Fink and Carol Kuhnke are running for this position. One is a staunch conservative and the other is a progressive liberal. Knowing party affilition for this race informs voters better than any other piece of information. I’m not saying that judicial elections should be partisan. I am saying that legislative elections like city council should be partisan.

        Secondly, the proposed charter has no automatic review by a vote of the people every 16 years. The current charter passed in 1994 has that. That’s why 16 years later, in 2010, voters approved convening a charter commission to consider a new charter. The charter commission eliminated this review vote in the proposed charter, so the new charter would last indefinitely until city council took action or a citizen petition was filed. I think all charters should have a periodic review by the voters.

        Paul Schreiber
        734-277-5446

      2. Gillian
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

        Did Murph just get retroactively promoted?

      3. Edward
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

        Good points, but my gut tells me to vote against Charter changes being pushed by our local Tea Partiers, Republicans and John Birchers.

      4. Posted October 22, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

        Gillian has a point: City Manager is a position I have never held.

      5. Site Admin
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        Thank you for pointing that out, Gillian. If you refresh your page, you’ll see that Mr. Murphy has be demoted.

      6. Posted October 22, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

        Thanks Murph for the coherent and complete argument. This is the first time that anyone has taken the time to actually lay out the reasons for partisan elections here that I’ve seen. Your points about the Hatch act are important considerations. I will admit to being up in the air about the revision amendment based only on that change. I do have some other concerns/questions though.

        Looking at section 11.07 Charter revision Amendment, I see that this revision takes away the vote by citizens on whether to amend the charter. It leaves in place the stipulation that the charter can be amended per state law. Does anyone know off the top of their head how that works? Why would we get rid of the citizen vote which occurs every 16 years?

        I see two other significant changes that concern me. The new restrictions on Council’s ability to remove board members (9.03b) on the face of it seem like good ideas. Of course we want to protect board members’ jobs from being jeopardized every time a new council member is elected. However, to my mind, it seems like it’s possible there are times it would be in the city’s best interest to remove board members even when there isn’t mal/mis/non feasance. I’d be interested to hear the arguments on both sides of this.

        I also find cause for concern in 8.02b which states “… that any subsequent cost of
        repaving or maintaining g such local streets shall not be financed by special
        assessments but shall be paid from the general funds of the City.” To my mind this means that any given street repair or maintenance can only ever be financed by one special assessment ever. Again, on the surface, this seems like a good idea. We don’t want to be funding all our street work with special assessments especially not repeatedly. The problem is that this eliminates that option even in reasonable situations. Let’s say we need to repave Grove Rd near where it connects to the Township’s nicely repaved section (hint hint) and we use a special assessment to pay for. Fifteen years go by, we repave it twice in that interval via the normal sources and all is happy. Then we get to the situation again where the road is badly damaged and it’s going to be several years before the funds are available to repave. Now we’re stuck with one less option.

      7. Posted October 22, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

        Other than going to a non-partisan primary and removing the automatic charter review every 16 years, are there any other substantive changes in the proposal?

        Based on just those I’m on the fence but leaning toward support; I think a non-partisan primary would be a significant improvement, while the removal of the automatic charter review is a loss.

      8. The Real Real McCoy
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

        I think Mayor Schreiber perfectly expresses the major opposition to the change: The current system encourages laziness in the political system at a local level and Ypsilanti Democrats reap the rewards. This is 2012, not 1962. We have the technology (especially in Ypsilanti) to get information we need to make an informed decision. This decision will encourage a more educated and informed electorate…and it will make the campaigns work that much harder to get their message out.

        The important thing to note, is that this change doesn’t prevent anyone from being labeled as a democrat or a republican. All this does is put the republican/independent candidate on equal footing to defend himself from attacks and get the fairest election possible. For example, with the appointment of Jim Fink or Carol Kuhnke, they can be called out as republicans or democrats till the cows come home…but filling in the “all Democrat” dot at the voting booth will never vote for either of them. The voter still has to make a real decision.

      9. The Real Real McCoy
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        “Looking at section 11.07 Charter revision Amendment, I see that this revision takes away the vote by citizens on whether to amend the charter. It leaves in place the stipulation that the charter can be amended per state law. Does anyone know off the top of their head how that works? Why would we get rid of the citizen vote which occurs every 16 years?”

        Looking at the Home Rule City Act of 1909, it appears that you can amend the city charter by 3/5ths council vote or citywide vote not more than every two years. So it appears that that the Home Rule City Act is much more flexible than what we have in place now.

        http://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/mcl/pdf/mcl-act-279-of-1909.pdf

        One intriguing thing to note: 117.5 – Prohibited Powers

        Now I’m no attorney, but it looks to me like there is language in there to prevent another Water Street from happening…which makes this change all that much more enticing.

        “However, to my mind, it seems like it’s possible there are times it would be in the city’s best interest to remove board members even when there isn’t mal/mis/non feasance. I’d be interested to hear the arguments on both sides of this.”

        I think that change is made because you don’t want a group of “non-partisans” threatening another “non-partisan” to vote a certain way under threat of removal from office.

      10. The Real Real McCoy
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

        “So it appears that that the Home Rule City Act is much more flexible than what we have in place now.”

        Actually, I take that back…not more flexible. But if we can’t get a 3/5ths vote on a charter review once every 16 years, then I don’t think you’re putting much faith in your community leaders.

      11. Gillian
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        “if you want to vote against the Charter, but like the idea of removing artificial barriers for both candidates and voters with a non-partisan election, we can bring a petition next year to amend the charter to provide a November, non-partisan, instant runoff voting system for our local offices.”

        Yes! let’s do this. I think getting rid of partisan elections without also adding instant runoff voting (http://www.fairvote.org/instant-runoff-voting) would be a big missed opportunity. Part of the reason that party primaries exist is to allow the party to rally behind one person and not split their vote among multiple qualified candidates.

        In a small town election where you probably know the candidates (and have multiple opportunities to get to know them if you don’t already), this would allow a lot more nuanced choices than anything partisan while also avoiding the problems of the Hatch Act. My other big concern about moving council elections to November is that it’s harder (and therefore more expensive) to cut through all the election-year noise, so IRV would also help give smaller-budget candidates a chance.

        (sidebar question: Since Ypsi’s council candidates have alternating 4-year terms, half of those candidates would always have to run during big, noisy presidential elections while the other half would always get off-year elections. Would this make a difference in the kind of candidates who could run in different years?)

        Mostly, I think I am swayed by Paul’s and Adam’s arguments about how all the other crap that’s thrown into the charter amendment is enough for me to oppose it. But I agree with Murph that it is time to seriously consider going non-partisan – let’s just do it the right way instead of just sneaking it into a charter amendment that has had nearly no public review or conversation.

      12. Bob Doyle
        Posted October 22, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

        I’m Bob Doyle and I am a Charter Commissioner. I’ll try to address some of the issues that have been raised here.

        The Charter Commission was elected in November of 2010. The Commission was elected on a non-partisan ballot, with some members known to lean right and others known to lean left on the political spectrum. Even with this political diversity, the group proceeded with respect, civility, and congeniality.

        As directed by the City Attorney, the Commission diligently went through the existing charter line by line, contemplating the input of city staff and others, and wrestling with each change. The process took over 18 months, and involved at least 10 public meetings.

        I appreciate Mr. Murphy’s analysis of the non-partisan aspect of the proposed Charter. It certainly is the most significant change that has been proposed, and one that will generate the most interest in the community. I would like to dispel at least one myth right up front: the non-partisan proposal does not represent a right wing conspiracy to take over the city. I voted Obama in 2008, and will do so again on November 6th, and I—among other left leaning commissioners—support the change to non-partisan elections for our community, for many of the reasons Murph wrote of.

        Before you choose to vote no on the premise that you could seek a change to the charter to non-partisan elections through other means, I would suggest that you look carefully at the changes proposed, and consider that they were developed as a result of a deliberative, informed process. As to the inclusion of a primary, the thought was that this provided some protection from a candidate being elected by winning the most votes, though their political positions were outside the mainstream of Ypsilanti’s voters’. The primary allows the voting process to vet out the candidates so that we elect the best possible leaders.

        At the Public Hearing on March 7, 2012 that was held to review the proposed charter, I presented information on what I considered to be the top 12 most important changes. Below is text taken from the presentation.

        “1. Article 2.04 Compensation
        WHAT is Changed? Increases in the compensation of City Council members are to be limited to the rate of inflation.
        WHY? To continue to provide for compensation to City Council while managing potential cost increases in a responsible way.

        2. Article 2.06 Judge of Qualifications (and others)
        WHAT is Changed? Broaden the potential sites of official public notices to include print newspapers, the city website and on-line news sources, or where authorized by State Statute.
        WHY? To recognize that changes in technology are impacting how residents are getting information, and to allow for future changes in technology and state law.

        3. Article 2.09 Action Requiring an Ordinance
        WHAT is Changed? Specify that only leases of land that will last over 24 months require an ordinance.
        WHY? Provides flexibility to the City administration to enter into short-term leases of city-owned land.

        4. Article 2.10 Ordinances
        WHAT is Changed? Require that ordinances must be proposed with the support of (any) two members of City Council..
        WHY? Provides for more efficient council proceedings by establishing a minimal level of support for an ordinance prior to consideration by the council.

        5. Article 2.18 Submission to Electors
        WHAT is Changed? Eliminate the ability to hold a special election related to a petition-driven initiative or referendum. Such elections would now occur as part of a regular election.
        WHY? To be compliant with State Statute and reduce costs associated with special elections.

        6. Article 3.01 City Elections
        WHAT is Changed? Proposes that all City elections be on a non-partisan basis, and provides for a primary when more than one person runs for a given office.
        WHY?
        In practice, elected positions are often determined in August by 1/3 to 1/2 of the people who vote in November.
        Today, voters are less affiliated with a particular party, and disheartened by bitter and/or partisan politics.
        Brings Ypsilanti into line with the overwhelming majority of Michigan cities that vote non-partisan.
        Creates a need for candidates to educate the public on their positions on local issues, and requires that voters learn the attributes of the candidates.
        Ypsilanti is an inclusive community that should welcome fuller participation from all: Democrats, Republicans, Greens, other parties, and the completely unaffiliated!

        7. Article 3.10 Canvass of Votes
        WHAT is Changed? Amended to clarify that the City of Ypsilanti no longer has an active Board of Canvassers.
        WHY? This work is now provided by Washtenaw County.

        8. Article 4.08 City Clerk
        WHAT is Changed? Stipulate that the City Clerk is hired by, and answers to, the City Manager.
        WHY?
        Consistently reflects the role of the City Manager in a “weak mayor” system of city government as the leader of administration.
        Since the clerk is responsible for elections, this removes any potential conflict of interest of the clerk being answerable to elected officials.

        9. Article 5.08 Lapse of Appropriations
        WHAT is Changed? Money budgeted for a given department that is not spent, encumbered, or planned for use in a capital expense by the end of the year, will revert back to the general fund rather than be carried over.
        WHY? Provides for more flexibility in year-to-year budgeting for City Council and administration, such that unspent money can be re-purposed.

        10. Article 8.10 Assessments on Single Lots
        WHAT is Changed? Provides for due process before an individual special assessment is levied.
        WHY? Out of fairness, a property owner should be allowed to appeal to the City Council and get a determination as to the validity of an individual special assessment.

        11. Article 9.03 Boards and Commissions
        WHAT is Changed? Provides criteria for the removal from office of any member of a board or commission; that is, “for misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office.”
        WHY? To be consistent with state law regarding planning commissioners and to eliminate removal during a board and commission members term for political reasons.

        12. Article 11.07 Charter Revision Question
        WHAT is Changed? Removes the automatic ballot question for revising the Charter (previously every eighth regular city election). Revising the Charter would be as State Statute allows, either through City Council initiative or citizen petition.
        WHY? Avoids confusion on the automatic ballot question, but still provides for change when desired.”

      13. Posted October 22, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

        Thank you all for your comments… Now I just need to try to make sense of them and figure out how I’ll cast my vote.

      14. Posted October 23, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

        “However, to my mind, it seems like it’s possible there are times it would be in the city’s best interest to remove board members even when there isn’t mal/mis/non feasance.”

        Once you eliminate nonfeasance (failure to do something you’re responsible for), misfeasance (causing harm by undertaking your duty inappropriately), and malfeasance (executing your duty in bad faith). Once you’ve covered all those, what’s left? Honest disagreement? (Which you could still make into a case of misfeasance, most likely.) Just simple personal or political dislike? (Which appointed commissioners probably ought to be protected from.)

        Look at Pittsfield Township for a (bad) example: in 2000, new Township Board elected, they dismissed the entire planning commission and appointed new ones. In 2008, another new Board came in, and again dismissed the entire planning commission. (And fired a bunch of senior staff.) Do we really want our appointed boards and commissions whipsawing suddenly back and forth every few years as new councils get elected, without at least requiring some statement and hearing of cause?

        Really, the 2008 Pittsfield case actually also shows how slim the cause needs to be: the formal cause for removing all of the planning commissioners was that they had failed to provide the Twp Board with an annual report of activities–a year previously, in 2007–and that this constituted nonfeasance. (The Board even dismissed a Commissioner who hadn’t even been appointed yet at the time of the offense, in a sins-of-the-father move. So the bar’s rather low.)

        If we want to look at the timely local topic of the Ypsi Housing Commission, as the example I expect someone to throw up in favor of loose removal standards, I think a case could definitely be made for nonfeasance, misfeasance, or both in the Commission’s oversight of the YHC Director and the commission’s finances–I certainly wouldn’t consider that mess to be an example of why we need to maintain the “he looked at me funny” standard of removal.

        (Disclosure: as an appointed planning commissioner, I could potentially be considered to have a vested interest here. So far, no city councilmembers have threatened to have me removed for my statements in support of non-partisan elections, but I’ll let you know if that changes. ;) )

      15. Posted October 23, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

        Incidentally, there is one change to the charter’s language on appointed boards and commissions that I was disappointed the charter commission rejected: the proposed charter maintains the language that, “Council Members may be appointed by the Council to serve on a [city] board or commission only when the service is required by State law.”

        In many cities, a councilmember is appointed to each board or commission, to serve as a liaison between council and that board. Many of the councilmembers and commissioners I’ve talked to in other communities find this very helpful, as a way to bake in a direct line of communications and policy linkage between the council and each board. The Planning Commission passed a resolution (which I wrote) asking the Charter Commission to consider removing this prohibition, but they declined to. Oh well.

      16. Ben
        Posted November 3, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

        So where is the supporting evidence for these recommendations? Was there no formal report? A lot of these changes seem to be based on “it’s just a good idea” or “everyone else is doing it this other way”, not based on the existence of an actual problem. The Hatch Act argument is a good one, but I need something equally substantial for the rest of it.

      17. Glen S.
        Posted November 29, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

        The Ypsilanti Charter Commission met tonight and, having lived up to its responsibility to make recommendations for City Charter revisions for voters to consider — and seeing those proposed changes rejected — voted to dissolve.

        I’m glad the issue of “non-partisan” elections has finally been put to rest (at least for the next 14 years), but somewhat disappointed that some of the Commission’s other thoughtful recommendations likely will not be adopted.

      18. Posted November 29, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

        Which ideas did you like, Glen? And might there not be ways to implement them outside of the Charter?

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      1. [...] YES Proposal 4: YES Proposal 5: NO Proposal 6: NOCity Charter Revision My friend, Richard Murphy, made a compelling argument on this site as to why the citizens of Ypsilanti should support the revis…, especially as it pertains to the provision on nonpartisan elections. In spite of it, though, [...]

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