Steve Rao

Position Paper on 2013-49 Amending the Town Charter Restoring the All At-Large Mode of Electing Board Members

The recent discussion on moving to an All At large election process for the Town of Morrisville has generated much debate within our community, and I welcome this public participation.

The public hearings have been helpful to me as I deliberate on this issue and I also have managed to speak to a number of constituents around Morrisville on this issue.

Let me say from the outset that this decision is not as easy as some claim it to be.   No decision should be easy to me as a sitting board member of our Council and as always, before I make any decision, I need to address the pros and cons of each side and also the impact that any decision will have on future citizens of Morrisville.

If the decision were to move from a purely district system to an All At Large system, I would not have to think very hard before voting for this change.

However, we need to realize that we have a hybrid district system, where we have the same benefit of other All At Large jurisdictions in that every citizen can vote for any candidate running for the Council.

Like citizens in Apex, Fuquay Varina, Holly Springs, Garner and Wake Forest, Morrisville citizens can vote for any candidate, regardless of where they live in the Town.

This is different than other hybrid District systems, like in Raleigh or Cary, where a voter is limited to voting for candidates who live in their jurisdiction with a combination of At Large Seats.   The Town of Cary and City of Raleigh, which are larger and growing cities, do have districts, which limit the voters to only vote for the candidiates, which live in their district.

Since we are growing, does it make sense for us to retain some type of District representation. I think it does or should at least be considered.

At issue, is the residency requirement, which mandates that candidates live within certain Districts as a requirement to run for the Council.

The policy reasons behind residency requirements are as follows:

  1. Provide geographic representation for different sections of the Town.   As the town continues to grow, districts enable long term representation of citizens, and can also enable neighborhoods to have closer contact to their elected representatives on the Council.
  2. Prevent seven members or a majority of the Council to be elected from the same section of the Town.   Currently, it is possible to elect up to five members of the same Council from a neighborhood, but under an All At Large system, it is possible for the entire Council to be elected from one neighborhood.
  3. Mayor and two at large seats:  Currently, anyone in the Town can run for the At Large seats and Mayor so we do provide options for those candidates to run without a residency requirement.

In order to debate this issue properly, let us know take some of the argument of the benefits of the moving to a complete At Large System and analyze each argument.

Reasons for At Large Policy Discussion Policy Recommendations
Districts as drawn do not make sense This may true and needs to be addressed.   The Districts which were redrawn in 2011, do not seem to make sense but we may need to take another look at the Districts before eliminating this option    I think before we rush into a decision to eliminate the districts, we need to have more public information work sessions on this issue. 

Work Sessions and more public input.

Voter Confusion I do not necessarily agree that the ballot is confusing in Morrisville elections.   It is clear from the ballot that you vote for all candidiates on the ballot, similar to the Wake County Commissioner races.  Voter Education and our PIO officer can help clear this up for voters if there is confusion. 

More Voter Education.  I would propose a reminder in our newsletter to our citizens on the voting process, and also information sessions to educate the voting public.

Uncontested elections There have been contested elections in Morrisville for the past two elections.

Not an issue at this time.   Contested elections in District elections can provide a chance to show how candidates differ on issues rather than a longer slate of candidates.

 

Other Towns of our size have all At Large Systems Yes. This is a true fact but each of these jurisdictions has only five members on the Council with a non voting Mayor, which is what Morrisville had before changing to the system we have today.     Perhaps, the reasoning behind this is that if there are seats up every two years, it would decrease the possibility of  stacking one neighborhood with Council seats.

Perhaps, we consider or explore reducing the size of our Council if we do go to an all At Large.   I would suggest having the UNC School of Government to come in and present some work sessions to our citizens so we take our time to make the correct decision or examine the policy reasons behind why these All At Large elected Councils have only five members on the Council.

If towns of our size only have five Council members, we could actually save $25,000 per year in costs, which, could be a valued addition to the general fund.

 

Districts are meaningless Councilmember Diehl, in his Letter to the editor to the Cary News referred to the Districts as “meaningless”.  The Districts are not meaningless and there are policy reasons for the Hybrid District system, which we currently have in place.

Before we go to an All At Large system, Council may want to consider other options, like 3 Districts or 3 At Large.   I think we may benefit the voters by coming up with additional options.

In addition, according to the UNC School of Government, Council can also change our boundaries without a new census so I would also suggest that we consider this course of action this year as many folks are justifying a move to all At Large because our Districts boundaries and lines do not make sense.   Even one more At Large seat, could provide more opportunities for candidates to run without a residency restriction.

 

Final Decision by Councilman Rao

After reviewing our current policy of electing Town Council members, particularly the policy reasons behind the system, we have in place today,  I am not in favor of amending the Town Charter at this time to go to an All At Large system without voter approval.

While we have heard from a number of citizens on this issue, I am confident that a significant percentage of our population is either satisfied with the current system, or would prefer continued dialogue on this issue before our Council makes a decision to change the Charter.

Our current system provides a way for every citizen to vote for any candidate while at the same time, ensuring geogpraphic representation to our Council.   While it is true that every member of our Council represents all citizens, not their District, it does provide a healthy balance to our body, to have elected representatives come from different areas of the Town.

In addition, according to the UNC School of Government, Council can also change our boundaries without a new census so I would also suggest that we take this course of action this year as many folks are justifying a move to all At Large because our Districts boundaries and lines do not make sense.

I believe that there are many undecided voters out there, whom we need to educate on this issue before we change the Charter and that any change to our charter which affects voter rights, in good faith, should not be done unilaterally by the Council without a vote by our citizens.  It is is in our long term interest to make these changes, in a year when we are not electing our Council.

Finally, any attempt to change the system now, before an election, leads to a perception, that we are gaming the system, similar to what the Legislature is doing with the School Board elections.

However, I do believe that this is an important issue that needs to be addressed, and there needs to be more voter education, additional public input sessions, and any change that we make to our current system, needs to be by a Voter referendum.

Since a referendum or special election would have to take place in August (90 days from intent to change Charter Ordinance), I believe that we will not have enough time for voter education and we need more time to consider our options and how we move forward in addressing this issue.   In addition., any change regardless of voted in 2013 or 2014 would not go into effect until 2015.

While I am open to a referendum, I would be more willing to consider this option after more public input and to have this take place during a non election year, in 2014.    I ask that we continue the discussion, and revisit this issue again with serious consideration in early 2014.

I thank our citizens for their continued input and for their being so engaged in the life and heart of our Town.

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