Saturday, August 22, 2009

Laurel's Sept. 8 Referendum

The September 8 referendum is starting to generate a lot of buzz. And if the recent flier at my door and Laurel Leader letter to the editor are any indication, serious consideration of the issues we'll be voting on are in danger of being swamped by political vitriol, and unrelated issues. So here's my take on the recommendations. I'll be out of town Sept. 8 and have already cast my ballot -- but hopefully others will start thinking about these, and what they mean for the city's future. Let's see some real dialogue -- here, Facebook, Twitter, newspapers, list-serves, public meetings etc. whatever media you use to communciate. Thanks to Jim McCeney, whose pulled together some good data on what other jurisdictions are doing. In order of those I have strongest feelings on:

Expanding the Council Terms to 4 Years

Reasons to vote against:
. This issue is the big one for me. I want to be able to show my approval, or disapproval, for actions the City Council takes within a reasonable period of time -- not four years after the fact. Two years works for the US House of Representatives. It's fine for the Laurel City Council. Time Commitment. 4 years is a long commitment. I would disagree with the Commission's recommendation that a longer term will encourage more participants. I think just the opposite is true. It will discourage what is already a small pool of people willing to serve. Former Council member Rick Wilson has told me that if he had had to commit to four years he wouldn't have agreed to serve. If our goal is to get more participation, making it a more onerous commitment makes no sense.

Reasons to vote for: The only reasons I've heard for this are the expense to run for office and that it takes people time to learn the job. Neither of these holds water for me. In today's electronic world, getting the word out is less expensive than ever. And if don't think you can grasp the basic job within one year, perhaps you shouldn't run. Council members don't' have term limits. Run for a second term -- and use your experience and record as a reason for reelection.

Voting for Ward Specific Council Seats

Reasons to vote for: Greater accountability in each ward might indeed increase voters' interest in how their representative votes. Many other jurisdictions have this provision. It's tempting to vote for it.

Reasons to vote against: Laurel is a small town -- and while it's tempting to add some partisanship to the voting process to increase turnout, I'd hate to see issues become an us v. them, i.e. Old Town v. New Parts of Laurel. Having representatives live in their wards and one at-large representative with people voting for all seems a balanced solution. Those living in their ward should have a sense of what their constituents there need/want, but all-community voting makes it easier for them to vote what's best for all of Laurel rather than just their part of the community. For that reason I voted against this recommendation.

Changing the Date to November and Expanding the term of the current Council for 11 Months.
Changing the date is not an issue for me. Many (8 of 12) jurisdictions Jim Mc. surveyed vote in November, and it's the month we think of for elections. A note to Laurel: Pick a date and stick to it. Since I've lived here it's been in March and September. Moving dates only confuses voters.

Expanding terms
Reasons to vote for. Moving the election to November in odd years means an election in September 2010 then another in November 2011. That's two elections and the costs thereof. Extending terms would save money.

Reasons to vote against
Accountability and terms in office are closely connected for me. See my discussion above. The cost of an election should not be the determining factor on whether we hold our officials accountable for their service, or, for that matter, hold an election in more than one polling place. It should be noted that the Commission recommended multiple polling places with its recommendation for more wards. More polling places was the logical way to expand voter turnout back in the 1990s when the voter commission I served on recommended a second polling place. It's still a good idea today. No polling place in the newer parts of Laurel, or even alternating the polling places disrespects those who don't live in Old Town Laurel.

Whether or not you agree with their actions, City Council people and the Mayor work really hard on our behalf, and that effort is to be admired. Is salary a determining factor in whether a persons runs for office -- probably not, and it shouldn't be. They do deserve compensation -- and if you figured out their hourly wage v. hours worked I'm sure it would be, truly, a pittance.

However. This issue has become the big bugaboo for this referendum. And it shouldn't have been. The Commission wasn't asked to address this; and the City Council should have shown a little common sense and said "Thanks but no thanks" and not even put it on the referendum. Putting it to the referendum showed a real lack of political sensitivity, and savvy, since they basically punted their responsibilities--and now are being criticized for the action. Yes. Council members work very hard. However. There is a recession,, people are hurting and worrying about their jobs. State and county budgets are being drastically cut and workers are being furloughed. It simply wasn't the time to consider a raise. What were you thinking?

So. Go. Be sure to Vote September 8. If you don't vote, you can't complain about the results!
Note: the City of Laurel has its materials available at its website: