Three-year council terms a bad idea

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It's rare that I say this, but I agree with the Tulsa Whirled editorial board. In a Wednesday editorial, they urged the defeat of a proposed charter amendment to have the City Council elected to staggered three-year terms, so that only a third of the council is up for re-election in any given year. The amendment will be on the November general election ballot.

Here are their objections:

First, it would perpetuate the current silliness of holding some municipal elections in odd-numbered years, when voter turnout will be low.

Further, it would shotgun the races over three years, meaning there will be less publicity about elections. Councilors will be able to run for re-election below the radar of public scrutiny.

And it would give councilors three-year terms instead of the current two years, making them less responsive to voters.

Finally, it would mean it would take three election cycles for voters to flush out a corrupt or inept council.

On the whole, it wouldn't be unreasonable to conclude that the change is designed to make the council more powerful and less accountable to voters.

I disagree with their disdain for municipal elections in odd-numbered years. Municipal issues deserve attention that they are unlikely to get in the midst of a presidential or gubernatorial campaign. Nevertheless, they are correct to point out that staggered terms make it harder to clean house and make it more difficult for voters and potential candidates to plan for the next opportunity to replace their councilor.

By the way, those very same factors are at work in our school board election process, but worse. In Tulsa, school board members serve four year terms, with two seats up each year, except for one year out of four when only one seat is on the ballot. In the suburbs, terms are five years, with only one seat open to change each year. The filing period, right after Thanksgiving, is in the midst of the Christmas season and always catches people unawares, a fact that likely explains the small number of candidates who file each year. Worse still, school board elections are non-partisan, which further depresses turnout; the lack of labels of any sort on the ballot is a deterrent to many voters. I look forward to the editorial board's endorsement of two-year terms for school board members, with all board members on the ballot at each election.

There's a theory that school administrators and bureaucrats like the staggered terms, because if a firebrand reformer should sneak through the defenses and get elected, the other members, having already been tamed and enculturated to The Way Things Have Always Been Done Around Here, will throw a wet blanket on his zeal. Staggered terms seem to have the same effect on authorities, boards, and commissions.

The same dynamic would be at work with staggered terms on the council. Far from making the council more powerful, it would make them less likely to challenge the Way Things Have Always Been Done at City Hall. From that perspective, it's surprising that the Whirled editorial writers would object to the idea.

The editorial goes on to note the legal problems with holding a September election in an even-numbered year, at a time when, it says, state law says "that during even-numbered years cities can't use the state voting system for elections in September." (Actually, state law -- 26 O.S. 13-101.1 -- says the county election board isn't required to run an election on a date other than those specified in 26 O. S. 3-101.) If the county election board wouldn't cooperate, as they probably wouldn't, given the expense, the city would have to staff polling places and either buy machines or else conduct a hand count of ballots.

On a related issue, a number of people have complained about this year's primary being the day after Labor Day. The city charter amendment that moved elections to the fall tied the primary and general election date to "the day specified by the laws of Oklahoma" in the months of September and November respectively. The relevant section of state law is 26 O.S. 3-101. This situation will occur two years out of every 28, when September begins on a Tuesday in an odd-numbered year. The next time is 2015, at which council and auditor are up for election, but not the mayor. After that, it won't happen until 2037, a mayoral election.

But to eliminate even those few occasions It would be a simple amendment to state law to change the September date from the second Tuesday to the Tuesday after the second Monday, thus avoiding the Labor Day problem altogether. The change would not only help Tulsa, but would benefit the whole state. No jurisdiction should be holding a special election the day after Labor Day.

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The filing period for the City of Tulsa's 2011 city election begins tomorrow, Monday, July 11, 2011, at the Tulsa County Election Board and runs through Wednesday, July 13, 2011, at 5 p.m. For the last time (at least until the charter is amended again)... Read More


Paul said:

I've made a quick review of the past 19.5 years of Council history. In general, voters have supported candidates with prior experience as Councilors.

In 1992, seven of the nine Councilors were re-elected. That equals 14 years of cumulative experience when the Council was only two years old! At the time of the 1994 election, the winners had a combined total of 23 years on the Council.

Since 1992, each "new" Council has begun with some collective tenure. There has never been an instance of voters wiping the entire slate clean.

In April 2006, five freshmen Councilors were elected, but even then, the four who were re-elected had a combined total of 14.5 years of previous time on the Council. In 2008, two freshmen were elected, and the other seven elected Councilors had a collective total of 21 years of prior service.

Note: I know that Steven Roemerman posted a analysis on his blog, but I conducted my review independently of his. I wasn't able to open Steven's MS Access file, anyway. I did some rounding on partial terms, and I counted Roscoe Turner's win in the special election of March 2004. Also, I did not include the four years Gary Watts served as a City Commissioner.

Paul said:

Who proposed this amendment? Who is backing it? What is the rationale?

I haven't seen any compelling reason for Councilors to have longer, staggered terms of office.

CGHill Author Profile Page said:

Down here in OKC, all council members are elected in odd-numbered years: this year saw expiring terms in Wards 1, 3, 4 and 7. In 2011 Wards 2, 5, 6 and 8 will be up for grabs. Only the Mayor is elected in an even-numbered year: Mick Cornett has already announced he'll run for another term in 2010.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 12, 2009 11:28 PM.

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